On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

12/12/2011 11:25 am ET | Updated Feb 11, 2012

On the one hand, I can't wait to hear the cast album that will accompany the revival of Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane's 1965 On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, since, apart from the glorious score, it has interpolations of other Lane songs you don't hear often, not to mention his standard, "Too Late Now," sung by the revival's star, Harry Connick, Jr.

On the other hand, I hope enough time passes that every time I listen to the album -- and I know I'll listen to it often -- I won't be reminded of the tackiness of the production itself, which opened Sunday at the St. James.

On a Clear Day, you see, has been rethought. This is perfectly understandable, since Lerner's book was always a mess. The plot concerned a psychiatrist who uses hypnosis as a treatment. Under hypnosis, his female patient became a young Englishwoman of two centuries earlier. Lerner had used 18th century Scotland to great effect in his first hit with Frederick Loewe, Brigadoon, but the 18th century trappings here seemed merely forced.

In the new book, by Peter Parnell, not only is the patient male -- a young, insecure gay florist -- but the figure of which he is the reincarnation is a female nightclub singer of the '40s. Making the trance-induced personality, Melinda, a chanteuse is a pretext to bring in other Lane songs, mostly period pieces but also the great "Too Late Now."

As for making the patient, David, a gay man, it ultimately makes the book even more awkward, in part because it seems more like a sketch than a fully realized idea. The psychiatrist -- who is straight and widowered -- falls in love with an illusion of a woman but he finds himself attracted to the young man in whom she is hypothetically embodied.

If we sensed that the shrink had some questions about his own sexual desires, maybe this might be provocative. But mainly it leads to a moment in which, trying to kiss his imaginary beloved, he embraces David, which comes off merely clumsy, hardly as funny as its creators must have imagined it would be.

Nor do the gags Parnell has written from this premise really work -- at one point early on, before he's fully grasped the situation, David declares that if the shrink desires him, he's "barking up the wrong pansy." (He's a florist, remember.)

That David should be drawn to the shrink -- given he's played by the hunky Connick -- is more understandable, though in fact he has a lover who's extremely handsome, genuinely caring and a wonderful singer to boot (Drew Gehling).

It would help if the young man himself were enormously appealing, but I found David Turner, who has apparently been with this production throughout its workshops and previous incarnations, quite charmless. Nor was I won over by his rather nasal-sounding voice.

He gives a powerful performance of "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?", the song in which, originally, the patient tries to figure out why the doctor prefers her alternative self to her real self. But the song now seems pretty stupid. His imaginary self is a woman. He is a man. The question pretty much answers itself. Why is he so confused?

The great discovery of this production is Jessie Mueller, who plays Melinda. She has a warm, deep voice and an inviting personality, which makes you wish her part were bigger. The songs she sings are, given the breadth of Lane's work, trifles, but she projects every bit of musicality and dynamism they have.

Lane, one of the masters of the Great American Songbook, alas, only wrote three scores for Broadway -- "Clear Day," "Finian's Rainbow," with E.Y. Harburg, and, also with Lerner, "Carmelina," which has an immortal ensemble for four male voices, "One More Walk Around the Garden." No, I won't retract immortal -- it is a profound piece of music, reflecting the depths of which Lane was capable.

His score for Clear Day, though it has a lot of comic novelties, several of which have been deleted here -- no great loss -- has three numbers of unquestionable majesty and grandeur, the title song, one about the illusory former self, "Melinda," and what is now a quartet, "She Wasn't You." All three go far beyond the standard Broadway idiom. Happily, the score is beautifully served under the musical direction of Lawrence Yurman. The musical high point is the quartet, splendidly sung by Connick, Tyler, Gehling and Kerry O'Malley.

Connick sings his solos in a seemingly offhand, Sinatra-ish way, but their power is stilll eivdent. The role of the psychiatrist is not written with much depth, but Connick has an earnestness that makes the character believable and winning.

The casting of the subsidiary characters tends toward the cartoonish -- I found Sarah Styles, who plays Muriel, David's closest friend, particularly strident.

The original book was simply set in "the present." For some reason the current one is set in 1974. Costume designer Catherine Zuber has caught the dreary fashions of the early '70s quite tellingly, which means the stage is often not a pretty sight. Nor is it helped by set designer Christine Jones' constantly moving Op Art constructions. I have a hunch choreographer Joann M. Hunter thought she was satirizing the plastic styles of the period's dance, but it's hard to see the results as any less hollow.

The direction by Michael Mayer accentuates the surface quality of the work. When the two sides of Melinda were played by the same person (the inimitable Barbara Harris) the character at least made the show a star vehicle. Dividing the character into two such unequal parts only adds to the sense of contrivance.

Clear Day remains a mess, but a mess with a fabulous score.