nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 24, 2009
Flahooley was first seen on Broadway in 1951 in a five-week run that became legendary. It was created by composer Sammy Fain, lyricist E.Y. Harburg, and book writers Harburg and Fred Saidy, and its eclectic cast included Barbara Cook, Yma Sumac, Ernest Truex, Irwin Corey, and Bil and Cora Baird. That mix gives a sense of the show's range and also of its inherent problematic-ness, for this is a musical that contains lovely sunny melodies and zippy, trippy Harburgian lyrics; a subplot involving Arab dignitaries, a genie, and an Arab princess (played by Sumac, the Mexican novelty singer, whose musical numbers were added by her husband); and a main plot that satirizes consumerism, corporate greed, and McCarthyism, among other targets. And puppets!
Here's a quick synopsis. Kindly Sylvester Cloud has invented a toy—a doll he calls Flahooley—which he sells to the monolithic toy corporation B.G. Bigelow, Inc. Sylvester is in love with Sandy, but too poor to marry her. But the Flahooley doll is such a big hit that it looks like Sylvester's fortunes will turn...that is, until Bigelow's competitor A.E.I.O.U. and Sometimes Y Schwartz comes out with a cheaper-priced Flahooley knock-off. Sylvester rubs a magic lamp and a genie appears, who helps Sylvester and Bigelow regain their market share. But the genie overproduces, and soon there are so many Flahooleys that Bigelow can't make any money selling them. A kind of witch hunt ensues in which Sylvester's background is investigated by a committee eerily similar to the one Senator McCarthy was in charge of, and Flahooley dolls are burned in public bonfires. Nevertheless, and thanks to the genie and the power of love, a happy ending is somehow delivered.
I wasn't born until many years after Flahooley came and went, but I was lucky enough to see a revival of the show about a decade ago at the Theatre at St. Clement's; director Alissa Roost more or less presented the show as written, and the result was an intriguing re-creation of a musical with an irreparably messy book but a pretty and clever score.
Keith Lee Grant has made a different, braver, harder choice with his new production of Flahooley, which is produced by the Harlem Repertory Theatre at Theatre for the New City: he's created a new adaptation of the book, cutting it down to about 90 minutes, re-arranging scenes and songs, and excising most noticeably all of the Yma Sumac songs. I'd like to say that Grant has solved Flahooley's problems, but in fact this adaptation seems to exacerbate them. The convoluted plot becomes very difficult to follow. Particularly problematic for me is Grant's decision to change the Flahooley doll's special feature: in the original version, it's a doll that laughs (rather than cries), but here, the doll says "Dirty red!" over and over again. It's an unappealing and un-subtle change.
The music is played live by a small band led by musical director Michael Roth, with occasional assists from recordings (the original cast album, perhaps?) that should probably be noted in the program. Grant has some strong singers in his cast, especially Alexandra Bernard, who leads the company rousingly as Bigelow's right-hand-woman. Standouts in the beautifully diverse cast also include Eric Myles, who delivers the strongest dancing, and Colette Harris, who plays Najla (the Sumac role) with bewitching charm and wit. Primy Rivera plays the genie, and he adds much comedy to the proceedings, though regrettably he doesn't do justice to his big song, "The Springtime Cometh." Natalia Peguero and John Wiethorn play Sandy and Sylvester, and E.Y. Harburg's grandson, Ben, plays Clyde, lending a distinctive and sunny presence to two of the show's best songs, "You Too Can Be a Puppet" and "The World Is Your Balloon." (One problem though: Grant's new book never fully explains who exactly Clyde is.)
This Flahooley is at its most imaginative in the design department. Daniel Fergus Tamulonis (who also portrays Bigelow) has designed lots of delightful puppets, which enliven many of the big numbers as well as the dream sequence in which Sylvester is interrogated. And set designer Mary Myers and videographer Edward Corcino have collaborated on a fun and inventive production design that features lots of whimsical animations projected on the surfaces of scenery, the rear wall of the stage, and even in one place on some costumes. These provide a cartoonish backdrop reminiscent of The Simpsons or the early work of Terry Gilliam that sets the mood nicely and that constantly surprises.
Flahooley is so chock-full of goodies and feels so timely in its indictments of the blacklist and capitalistic greed and exploitation that it's easy to see why Grant and his collaborators want to bring it back to the stage. But I'm not sure that it's a show that's truly revivable: it's of interest to theatre and cultural history buffs, but it doesn't really come together as a successful work of musical comedy.