I've never seen any earlier incarnation of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, the Lerner & Lane musical. By reputation I know it had a troubled book but some good songs; the clips of the film version were so leaden and awful I always avoided seeing that version as well. The original show must have been awfully confused because even with an entirely new book and complete re-imagination of the central story, On A Clear Day remains a muddied, unsatisfying work that -- except for one promising Broadway debut -- has little to offer.
Harry Connick Jr. stars as Dr. Mark Bruckner, a psychologist who is still mourning the death of his wife three years earlier, even as his career soars. It's 1974 in New York City and he stumbles across a new patient: a "homosexual"(It's 1974 after all) who works as a florist, can't commit to his lawyer boyfriend and wants to quit smoking. David (played by David Turner) is also remarkably susceptible to hypnosis. In the very first session, Dr. Bruckner stumbles across memories that make no sense, memories of a woman named Melinda (Jessie Mueller) who performed during the Big Band era leading up to World War II. Does David have an elaborate fantasy life? Or is he the reincarnation of Melinda? And does Melinda seem so beguiling because Dr. Bruckner is finally ready to fall in love again or is he just fixating on this imaginary person to fill the void in his life? You won't care about the answers to any of these questions.
The show is framed as a lecture Dr. Bruckner is giving at a convention (not a terribly exciting idea) and though Connick is somewhat charming in those moments, he spends most of the show looking very glum and standing on the side of the stage observing others. On A Clear Day never shakes that depressive atmosphere. When a show is unfocused and lost, it's not surprising when all the individual elements fail to coalesce either. It was re-conceived and directed by Michael Mayer (with a new book by Peter Parnell), but it wasn't re-conceived nearly enough.
The biggest decision was to change the patient from a woman to a man and to have the past life character played by a separate actress. That proves a fatal error. Reportedly the main appeal of the original show was the Venus In Fur-style attraction of watching a talented actress play a contemporary character and then slip right into an entirely different personality. This Clear Day ups the doctor-patient relationship by having the patient be a gay man. The repercussions are many. One, we don't get the central pleasure of seeing one actor play two different characters. Two, there's no tension between the doctor and the patient of today because even though Dr. Bruckner has fallen hard for Melinda, this show makes every effort to disabuse us of the idea that Bruckner could actually be harboring gay tendencies himself. So not much is at stake since Bruckner can never have Melinda and clearly doesn't want David. Third, it means little chance for chemistry -- the show tries one awkward scene where Dr. Bruckner and David and Melinda all dance together, but it's not sexy or suggestive, just clumsy.
Mostly, the sex quotient is tamped down on every level. Dr. Bruckner mopes around, ignoring the women who throw themselves at him; his relationship with Melinda feels mostly like a devoted fan, not a would-be lover. Dr. Bruckner's one female friend (Kerry O'Malley in the thankless role of a frustrated love interest) is dressed in the most unattractive outfits possible; she looks like a frumpy schoolteacher. David Turner may be a marvelous actor but here his character is written and dressed and directed to be a sexless gay man of 1974 who mostly just pecks his boyfriend on the cheek. When he's described as uninteresting, we have to agree. David's relationship with his beau Warren (handsome, strong-voiced Drew Gehling unable to bring a non-role to life) feels positively platonic. Indeed, the one believable detail we learn about David early on is that he does not want to move in with Warren and can't bring himself to say "I love you" or commit seriously in any way. At the first sign of a romantic possibility with someone else, David jumps.
This doesn't feel as if David is fated to be with Warren but is scared of commitment; everything we're shown indicates David is settling for easy familiarity when he should be bolder and want something more both at work and in his love life. Yet, the entire show climaxes with having David (still afraid to say "I love you") doing the opposite of what we expect. And his big defining number does not indicate some newfound spirit of self-confidence. It asks "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" where he wonders why his past life as Melinda was bolder and more fun. Playing it as a big triumphant moment the way this show does just doesn't make any sense.
The confusion goes even deeper. The setting of 1974 feels completely random and doesn't inform the story very much except for the somewhat jokey costumes of the students in Dr. Bruckner's class by costume designer Catherine Zuber.
The set by Christine Jones is efficient in changing scenes but the dominant look is a dizzying mural to create an air of hypnosis that involves trippy repetitions of squares and rectangles and the like. It looks smart as a curtain before the show begins (with Connick walking out through a giant keyhole so he can presumably unlock the unconscious) but ultimately it unmoors the show. The 1974 setting never gels and the flashbacks to 1943 and 1944 don't convince either because the dominant visuals pull us out of those periods every time. The routine, often clunky choreography by Joann M. Hunter fares no better.
Lawrence Yurman also unfortunately must be singled out for his work as musical director and on the vocal and instrumental music arrangements. Repeatedly on the big musical numbers, the vocals of the main characters clash with each other and the background singers. Whether it's "Wait Till We're Sixty-Five," "Open Your Eyes," "Melinda," "When I"m Being Born Again" or numerous other spots, what should be a joyous surge of voices joined in song instead sounds discordant or thin.
The show does have one redeeming feature: Jessie Mueller as the songbird Melinda Wells. Her scenes with the doctor are rather tame, consisting mostly of "hey, how are you?" type chatter while we watch her struggle and then succeed in her career. (The past life stuff makes absolutely no sense even on its own terms, not that it matters.) And her songs don't move the action forward and reveal character - they're essentially just stand-alone tunes. But Mueller delivers them beautifully, from her solo piano rendition of "Open Your Eyes" to her audition song "You're All The World To Me" to her big breakthrough with "Ev'ry Night At Seven," by far the night's most entertaining number complete with some convincing scatting at the finale. It's easy to believe that in a past life Mueller really was a big band singer. Her future seems clear as well: more work on Broadway.
Here's Harry Connick Jr. swinging the title song on Dancing With The Stars. He'll be back on Broadway soon, hopefully in something more exuberant and suited to him. (Meanwhile, doesn't he owe us the albums 35 and 40? If he didn't record them, let's hope he makes time in 2012 for recording 45.)
The Theater Season 2011-2012 (on a four star scale)
The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs ** 1/2
All's Well That Ends Well/Shakespeare in the Park **
The Atmosphere Of Memory 1/2 *
Bonnie & Clyde feature profile of Jeremy Jordan
Broadway By The Year: 1997 ** 1/2
The Cherry Orchard with Dianne Wiest **
Chinglish * 1/2
Crane Story **
Cymbeline at Barrow Street Theatre ***
An Evening With Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin ***
Follies *** 1/2
Godspell ** 1/2
Hand To God ***
Hero: The Musical * 1/2
Hugh Jackman: Back On Broadway ***
Irving Berlin's White Christmas ***
King Lear at Public with Sam Waterston **
Krapp's Last Tape with John Hurt ***
Lake Water **
Love's Labor's Lost at the PublicLab ** 1/2
Man And Boy * 1/2
The Man Who Came To Dinner **
Maple And Vine **
Master Class w Tyne Daly ** 1/2
Measure For Measure/Shakespeare in the Park ***
Milk Like Sugar ***
Misterman ** 1/2
The Mountaintop ** 1/2
Pigpen's The Nightmare Story *** 1/2
Once *** 1/2
Olive and The Bitter Herbs ** 1/2
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever * 1/2
One Arm ***
Other Desert Cities on Broadway ** 1/2
Private Lives **
Queen Of The Mist ** 1/2
Radio City Christmas Spectacular ** 1/2
Relatively Speaking * 1/2
The Select (The Sun Also Rises) ** 1/2
Septimus & Clarissa *** 1/2
Silence! The Musical * 1/2
69 Degrees South * 1/2
Sons Of The Prophet *** 1/2
Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark * 1/2
Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays **
Stick Fly **
The Submission **
Sweet and Sad **
Titus Andronicus at Public with Jay O. Sanders * 1/2
Unnatural Acts ***
Venus In Fur ***
We Live Here **
Wild Animals You Should Know ** 1/2
NEW YORK MUSICAL THEATRE FESTIVAL 2011
Blanche: The Bittersweet Life Of A Wild Prairie Dame *** 1/2
Central Avenue Breakdown ** 1/2
Crazy, Just Like Me ***
Cyclops: A Rock Opera *
Ennio: The Living Paper Cartoon ** 1/2
F---ing Hipsters **
Gotta Getta Girl ** 1/2 for staged reading
Jack Perry Is Alive (And Dating) * 1/2
Kiki Baby ** 1/2
Kissless * 1/2
Madame X **
The Pigeon Boys ***
Time Between Us * 1/2
FRINGEFEST NYC 2011
The Bardy Bunch **
Books On Tape ** 1/2
Hard Travelin' With Woody ***
Leonard Cohen Koans *** 1/2
The More Loving One **
The Mountain Song *** 1/2
Paper Cuts ***
Parker & Dizzy's Fabulous Journey To The End Of The Rainbow ** 1/2
Pearl's Gone Blue ***
Rachel Calof ** 1/2
Romeo & Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending **
2 Burn * 1/2
Walls and Bridges **
What The Sparrow Said ** 1/2
Yeast Nation ***
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.
Note: Michael Giltz was provided with free tickets to these shows with the understanding that he would be writing a review.