Overcast, with a Chance of Boredom

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Posts, Theater.



The original book to the 1965 On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is widely acknowledged as
abysmal—but it is solely on the basis of that show and The Apple Tree that Barbara Harris’ towering status as an icon of
musical theater rests. Not bad for a show that is frequently dismissed, despite
its gorgeous score by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane. Director Michael Mayer
and playwright Peter Parnell, however, thought they had the solution to the
original, and have given audiences a radically reworked version that is just as
flawed.

In On a Clear Day 2.0,
psychiatrist Mark Bruckner (Harry Connick, Jr.) is still mourning his dead
wife, and young, gay florist’s assistant David (David Turner) can’t quit
smoking or commit to his lawyer boyfriend. So the two of them end up in session
together, where David reveals a talent for being hypnotized, and Mark discovers
that David was a big band singer named Melinda Wells in a previous life. What
does Mark do? He drags David all over Manhattan and puts him under hypnosis to
spend the day with Melinda—when he’s not somehow transported back to Melinda’s
pre-World War II world, complete with waiters, band members and hoity-toity
lyricists.

The 1965 incarnation may have been listless, but at least it
boasted Harris and John Cullum as its stars (there’s a wonderful condensed
version of the show available on YouTube). Here, we have Connick Jr., clearly
uncomfortable with the big Broadway showtunes; Turner as a wan, charmless
leading man who destroys the second act hit “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have”
by overacting; and, making her Broadway debut, the refreshingly talented Jessie
Mueller as Melinda, playing her scenes with the steely strength and lovable
vulnerability of a young Judy Garland and blasting out her songs with the
precision and powerhouse vocals of a young Patti LuPone. Mueller’s
a-star-is-born moment comes in the second act, when she belts “Ev’ry Night at
Seven,” a song from the 1951 Lerner-Lane movie musical The Royal Wedding that she invests with all of the personality, magic
and sheer giddiness that the rest of the show is missing.

Mayer seems to have taken the story’s new time period of
1975 as the guiding vision behind the production, beating audiences over the
head with a succession of design elements that are almost laughably ugly.
Costume designer Catherine Zuber reveals herself to be a fan of matchy-matchy
clothes—at one point, Mark and his lovelorn co-worker both wear the same shade
of blue while standing downstage between David and his boyfriend, outfitted in
matching reds—corduroy and fringe, and Doug Besterman’s orchestration of “Wait ’Til
We’re Sixty-Five” sounds suspiciously like that of “But Alive” from 1970’s
Applause.

The list of mistakes made in preparing On a Clear Day for its second Broadway outing is a long one, topped
by the utter ludicrousness of its book—how
is Mark traveling back in time?—and underwritten characters. David is a
flouncing cipher, and Turner brings no charisma or quirkiness to his
performance. And the supporting cast members—including Sarah Stiles, making the
most out of her dippy character—are mostly reduced to singing backup and
filling the stage for hazy, hippie group numbers. The only person, behind the
scenes or onstage, who emerges unscathed is Mueller, safely ensconced in her
1940s setting and, on a cloud of music, serenely rising above the bad acid trip
that is the rest of the show. If she’s not a Barbara Harris yet, she well may become one.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

Open run, St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. (betw. Broadway
& 8th Ave.), www.onacleardaybroadway.com; $54–$157.

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