After he was informed against in Hollywood, ‘Yip’ Harburg returned to the stage with this show, which only managed to clock up 40 or so performances on Broadway. To be honest, it is a little surprising that it lasted so long. The script, by Harburg and Fred Saidy, is packed with glib, naïve critiques of capitalism – eg incredulity that over-production can have malign effects – and silly jokes about foreign affairs – eg the Arab saying that they will have to send an Ambassador to the USA in order to recall him to register official displeasure. Most of all, there is a lack of real wit. These days, most of the gags come across as patronising, if not actually offensive. For example, Bigelow greets the Arab and the Princess by just throwing-out random middle-Eastern words such as “shaslick”. The effect makes you cringe. Such things would surely this musical unrevivable these days. In addition, the laboured jokes about atomic power in the by-play with the genie Abou Ben Atom are excruciating too. Only the satire on the toy industry – the desperate search for a Christmas special – and the feverish intensity of Elsa Bundschlager’s hunt for Flahooley dolls to destroy have any kind of dramatic life.
It is a show that does not have a coherent structure. The love story of Sandy and Sylvester that dominates the early scenes disappears quickly from sight, swamped by the orientalist grotesquerie of the Princess and then by the genie. This in turn is pushed aside by the fervour of the McCarthyite witch-hunt. The style fluctuates between the quasi-realism of the toy business, the pantomime aspects of the dolls and the genie, the exotic singing of the Princess, and political satire. It is a strange ragbag of disparate elements.
The score is another problem. Although Sammy Fain wrote loads of highly successful songs, this show provides very few clues as to his melodic gift. The only number that enjoyed any lasting success was “He’s Only Wonderful”, which Sarah Vaughan quickly realised was ideal for her sumptuous voice. The other songs are mainly either strongly tied in to their specific context – “Happy Hunting” or “The Springtime Cometh” – or are features for an exotic cast member. One of the reasons for the “exotic”, orientalist strand in the show was that it incorporated a sensational star of the age – Yma Sumac, the supposed Inca princess with a voice that could span 4 ½ octaves. That by itself makes revivals problematic. In truth, though, it adds an element of the grotesque but nothing of real interest to the show. Margaret Preece took on the burden and performed like a proper bump-and-grind trouper.
Stewart Permutt added his 1930s, Eric Blore-style panache to the role of the genie. Matt “Alan Tracy” Zimmermann was every inch the egregious tycoon, Bigelow – a role with all the substance of a paper silhouette. He did what he could with the feeble script and Christmas cracker jokes. Myra Sands was scarily effective as the witch-hunter general. Michelle Whitney as the talking Flahooley doll has a career in horror films ahead of her, if she desires. James Vaughan these days seems to get the odds and ends – the newsreel announcer, the Arab – but, in such roles, over-acting is what matters. The parts are small but the acting is large and perfectly-formed.
Once again, Mark Warman was the MD. With the able assistance of Valerie Cutko, the show went very well. I really enjoy the way that he changes style – crisp and precise for the ensembles, shading into rhapsody and counter-melody for the more able singers. Emily O’Keefe took on a role that brought Barbara Cook to attention – Sandy. Their account of “He’s Only Wonderful” was gorgeous. The only other romantic number was “Here’s To Your Illusions” – a duet with James Irving as Sylvester, the inventor. If anything the performance was even better, well-blended voices and the MD stretching out his fingers for a change.