"Saturday Night"

Book by Julius J. Epstein
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Will McGarrahan
Music Direction by Joe Delgado
SpeakEasy Stage
Lyric Stage, Boston, MA  through June 30th 2001.

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

SpeakEasy Stage has assembled a cast of fresh faced kids out of the Conservatory to do a Boston premiere of the 46 year old show Stephen Sondheim wrote when he was a fresh faced kid-- and the kids are all right.  The show that Sondheim wouldn't allow to be produced until a year or so ago isn't  ground breaking.  Nor even particularly memorable-- although it is possible to leave the theatre humming the tunes.  The show's book is built on premises that recent work treats ironically, but since it is a period piece to begin with, Time itself provides sufficient irony. "Saturday Night" turns out to be a pleasant evening of theatre with a cornucopia of opportunities for young performers to practice charm and stagecraft, and one that can be produced without an army of chorus girls or a mountain of scenery.  I foresee a long and happy life for this show in college productions around the country .

"Saturday Night" is based on  play by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein called "Front Porch in Flatbush".  Set in 1929, it seems to be an affectionate tribute to the black sheep of their circle, a charming dreamer called Gene Gorman who longs to escape Flatbush and its tedious working class folkways and cavort among the moneyed swells he has caught a glimpse of in his lowly job as a Wall Street runner.   Fortunes were made overnight by lucky speculators.  The elevator boy in the Wall Street firm where Gene is employed has become fabulously wealthy.  Why not Gene? To finance his speculation, Gene forms a syndicate with his buddies from the Brooklyn neighborhood, promising to share with them the riches sure to reward their group investment in a Hot Tip. The buddies-- Bill Folman, John Micheal Dies, Branden Lubell, Chris Lambrix, David Krinitt, and musical director Jose Delgado doing double duty-- know better than to believe in Gene's schemes: and if they don't know, their wives and girl friends-- Jackie Duffy, Mary Faber, Tara Filowitz-- will tell them in no uncertain terms. But the guys can't resist the the lure of the stock market, whose upward rocket is in all the papers and on the news.   In 1929, Wall Street had not just its usual concentration of money and power, but the starry Brave New World prominence recently possessed by Silicon Valley-- that is, during the heady high right before its crash.

Meanwhile, Gene has bought himself proper evening clothes and learned to imitate class signifiers.  He crashes Park Avenue parties, and thrills to find himself accepted as one of the Beautiful People.  He meets a girl-- the Beautiful Girl (Bridget Beirne)--  and from then on it's a question of whether Gene will drag her into his castles in the air, or she will convince him that the good life is really in His Own Back Yard.   Most of the plot complications hinge on the fact that there are two Eugene Gormans, the lovable aspiring Gene and a successful but sour cousin who is also Eugene but is known in the neighborhood as Pinhead.  Pinhead (John Porcaro) is well off, he has some of the important trappings of wealth such as an expensive car,  but wealth is wasted on him.  The Other Eugene Gorman has no appreciation of style, none of the relaxed elegance that our Gene recognizes among the Entitled and aspires to emulate.  The Brooklyn gang, who tolerate Gene's little weaknesses,  feel towards this successful cousin the resentment we expect the working poor to feel towards greedy climbers who look down on them.  They are perfectly willing to screw Pinhead to save Gene, and they sing in celebration of this tribal loyalty in the wonderful parodic anthem, "It's that kind of a neighborhood"

Tall, handsome, graceful, and apparently guileless, Jon Mette makes Gene as attractive a romantic lead as possible, given the character's goals.  Paul Dimilla supplies a half dozen minor characterizations, and J.T. Turner scores vocally as well as dramatically in a trio of cameos. There isn't much real dancing in this "Saturday Night", but the movement is all nicely choreographed in pleasing patterns, either by director Will McGarrahan or choreographer David Connolly.  The performers are at ease and at home in this familiar territory: they know all the musical comedy moves.  Eric Levenson's set is transformed with only a few pieces added or subtracted to a street or a movie or a police station, or to a hint of various exotic realms of the Storied Rich.  Levenson supplies a luscious cantaloupe of a moon, and Karen Perlow bathes the stage in its romantic light.  Stacey Stephens' costumes are apt, and sketch in the details of period and position-- but I do wish they were in fabrics more flattering to the ladies. They make these attractive young persons look more like sedate matrons than Flappers.  This is a reasonable choice, given that in the plot the women ultimately serve as representatives of social conformity: but it drains away some of the fun, and diminishes the paradox of courtship.

Paradox is on parade in the brilliance of Sondheim's lyrics, however.  Whether the characters employ paradox consciously themselves, as in the title song, or critique each other by contrast, as in "One Wonderful Day" , or allow us to see through them, as in "Exhibit A", or successfully negotiate their way past paradox, as in "I Remember That", the words are wiser than their years, wiser than the story they tell, better than they have any intention of being.  More than the charming music, they are unmistakable signs of the gift for lyric truth that will set the standard for a generation.

I like the band balcony that appeared for this show: it makes for a good balance,  and I hope it shows up again for the musicals in the regular Lyric season next year.  However, at the performance I attended, both first and second act overtures revealed that the band in the balcony was not quite in tune.  I expect that this was a one-time accident, because it's not something one expects to happen in any show with Jon Goldberg's name on the program.   The singers shone in acapella harmonies, and whenever they dropped the heavy Brooklyn nasalization.  I found it a bit of a trial to endure an entire evening of bent Brooklyn vowels -- and I wasn't the only one..  Occasionally I could see the stress of choice on a singer's face during an exposed fermata: shall I go for the  Conservatory tone, or preserve the ethnic characterization?  I was rooting for tone every time, but dialect coach Nina Pleasants' push for authenticity usually won out.  I winced; but I think Sondheim would applaud.