nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 25, 2011
A piece from far back in the canon is getting a second look at Mel Miller's Musicals Tonight!, newly relocated to Theater Row. All American boasts a team of very famous creators—the book is by Mel Brooks, while the music and lyrics are the work of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, whose hit shows include Bye Bye Birdie and Applause. Originally produced on Broadway in 1962 (with Ray Bolger in the leading role), this was a flop then and—as Miller's fascinating concert-style revival demonstrates—deserved to be.
The show concerns a European engineering professor named Fodorski who emigrates to the United States, where he goes to teach at a small college in the South. Here, he both falls in the love with the (lady) Dean and revolutionizes the school by teaching the students that it's fun to think. He also, through a weird set of circumstances, winds up coaching the football team to unprecedented success, and then becoming so famous that he becomes the darling of an exploitative Madison Ave corporation. Somehow a happy ending is achieved.
Brooks's book wanders all over the place (theatre historian Ken Mandelbaum, in Not Since Carrie, tells us that Brooks was said never to have finished it, with his collaborators scrambling to find an ending for their show instead—this is plausible on the basis of the evidence here). The show covers so much terrain: the Cold War, immigration, college romance, the relationship between football and engineering, cold-hearted capitalism, et al. What it lacks, surprisingly, is comedy.
The score is wildly uneven. Several of the songs feel downright embarrassing; but there are some honest-to-goodness lost gems here as well, like "If I Were You" (which must have been a knockout when Bolger performed it) and the charming "I've Just Seen Her," which is assigned to the juvenile lead, an engineering student who inadvertently becomes the football team's star kicker. "What a Country!" (which originally opened the show, but here has been relegated to the act one finale spot) is a rouser. And then there's the utterly beguiling "Once Upon a Time," as lovely a grown-up love song as ever was written, which is a duet for Fodorski and the Dean; see if it doesn't make you tear up, just a little.
This is a show that never should be revived, which makes it precisely perfect for Mel Miller's marvelously quixotic enterprise. He shows us old/lost/forgotten musicals, warts and all, for our delectation and education and entertainment. This one, which runs close to three hours, challenges its audience's patience, especially in its long, twisty second act. But for fans of the form, it's neat to see a piece like this on its feet.
The cast assembled here, under the direction of Thomas Sabella-Mills, is generally fine, with the one real standout being Sean Bell, who plays the young scholar/football kicker Edwin Bricker. Matt Wilson, who was terrific last year in Miller's revival of Stop the World-I Want to Get Off, seems miscast here as Fodorski.
Coming up next spring for Musicals Tonight!: Li'l Abner, Sitting Pretty (from 1918!), and Something for the Boys.