Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2000
I drove to Weston to see “Saturday Night” because I could. There are not many places in the world where you can see five* Sondheim productions in the course of two months. Having seen the Barrington Stage production of “Company”, and with plans to see the same show at Oldcastle, and the Hubbard Hall production of “Sunday in the Park with George” in the coming weeks, it seemed a shame not to take advantage of Weston’s New England premiere of Sondheim’s “first musical”.
As always, Weston had mounted a good looking and professional production. Not perfect, but certainly not bad, and “Saturday Night” is neither perfect nor bad to start with. Would it be being staged at all, 45 years after it failed to get produced on Broadway, if the music and lyrics weren’t written by Stephen Sondheim?? No way! But they were and so it is, and, as an artifact of a legendary composer’s career, it is of interest.
Producer Lemuel Ayers met the 24 year-old Stephen Sondheim when they were both serving as ushers at a friend’s wedding. Ayers had acquired a play entitled “Front Porch in Flatbush” from the academy-award winning brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, and had failed to find a composer for the project, so he agreed to let Sondheim take a crack at it. Half the backing money was raised and the show was scheduled to open on Broadway in the Spring of 1955, but both Ayers and Philip Epstein died suddenly, and so did the project.
Looking at the show, it was not really those two deaths that derailed the project, but its instrinsic weaknesses. The Epsteins had written this show about another brother of theirs, and they were too close to the woods to see the trees. This third Epstein brother, a socially ambitious bon-vivant (gawd! imagine having one of those around the house!), may have been a hoot to his family, but there is nothing really amusing or interesting about his antics for the rest of us. The book is maudlin, sexist, and sometimes downright dull. It is no wonder that Frank Loesser and Alec Wilder turned it down, and no wonder that the backers pulled out after 24 year-old “Stephen WHO??” wrote the forgettable songs and lyrics.
Sondheim himself refused to allow “Saturday Night” to be staged until very recently - it had its New York (not Broadway) debut this past spring. It is not an embarassment, but, listening to it, I would not say “That young composer is going to go far!” The music was written by a young man who thought he knew what a Broadway musical sounded like; and so “Saturday Night” sounds like every other musical of the early ‘50’s. It does not sound like Stephen Sondheim.
Where Lemuel Ayers settled for a 24 year-old nobody as his composer because he had been turned down by the big boys, Weston seems to have settled for a known quantity as their leading man. I liked Caesar Samaoya as the male lead in last year’s Weston production of “Once on this Island”, but he is all wrong to play Brooklyn-born Gene Gorman. Samayoa is an exotic looking man, (I will not try to guess his ethnic background), and a mediocre ballroom dancer. There is nothing wrong with either of those things, but it is obvious from the script that Gene Gorman is intended to be anything but exotic looking, and a pretty spiffy dancer. Samayoa is not bad in the role, but he is not right either.
Would I have preferred one of the lily-white, pretty boys who played the rest of Gene’s Brooklyn “gang”. No. Again, they were talented, but they lacked the edge to convince me that they had ever hung out on a street corner in Brooklyn. Where Samayoa looked too ethnic, these guys didn’t look ethnic enough. Very few of the performers were able to sustain a Brooklyn accent - the leading lady Jennifer Waldman didn’t even try.
What I longed for was for someone to burst into “Gee, Officer Krupke”. It kind of makes you ache, knowing that within five years the same man would write those perfect lyrics (with just a little bit of help from the music of the legendary Leonard Bernstein, I know) while watching these lame early attempts to find the same voice. At one point one of guys, the one who played the piano, plinked out “shave and a haircut, two bits” when the local detective had come looking for Gene. Of course, Bernstein used that melody at the very end of “Officer Krupke” for Sondheim’s immortal final lyrics “Gee, Officer Krupke, krup you!” I was not the only one in the audience to moan softly at that.
Which brings me to the set. Who in their right mind keeps the piano, the radio, and the telephone on the front porch in Flatbush - especially in the 1930’s?? This was not so much the fault of designer Dick Block as it was the fault of the Epstein brothers. Their play was called “Front Porch in Flatbush” and this is obviously the front porch they envisioned, but I cannot imagine that items as valuable to a lower-middle class family as those would have been left out for all the world to take and use. In fact, before the invention of the cordless phone, no one had a telephone out of doors. You wouldn’t have had a jack wired on to your front porch.
But Block’s set is attractive and creative. Weston, wisely, did not blow their whole production budget on the first show of the season, (I hope they are saving their pennies for “Threepenny Opera”, which is my favorite show of their 2000 season, but I bet the money is budgeted for the Ascot scene in “My Fair Lady” - sigh!) In any event, Saturday Night acheived a nice, mid-range-budget period look.
While Waldman sang very nicely as Helen, Gene’s love interest, I enjoyed the two young women who had the bit parts the best. Piper Goodeve as Mildred and Jennifer Grace as Florence and nightclub hostess Dakota Doran were just a hoot and a half. I hope I get to see more of both of them - maybe next week in “The Mystery of Irma Vep”??
"Saturday Night" runs through July 1 at the Weston Playhouse in Weston, VT. The show runs two and a half hours minutes and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 802-824-5288 or visit the Weston Playhouse website for tickets and information.
* I will be skipping the fifth local Sondheim production - “A Little Night Music” staged by The Theater Barn July 27 through August 6 - because it is one of my favorites and I cannot quite imagine the Barn getting it right. If you go and discover that its brilliant, drop me a note and I will hustle right on over!
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2000