10/24/2013 01:14 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Aisle View: Kander's Enigmatic Triptych

The best description of The Landing -- the latest offering from the Vineyard Theatre, birthplace of such items as Avenue Q, The Scottsboro Boys and The Lyons -- might be to describe it as indescribable. To call it 'a new musical' is misleading. There is a small band playing music, yes, and eventually some songs; but the pattern is set early on with stretches marked by fifteen sentences or so of dialogue randomly punctuated with two lines that are sung. This prepares us -- or perhaps alarms us -- for an esoterically experimental evening, which The Landing turns out not to be exactly.

You could also, dangerously but not inaccurately, describe The Landing as 'the new John Kander musical.' While 'a musical' leads us to expect things that aren't quite present, labeling it a new Kander musical is far more problematic. After fifty years on Broadway -- with much ground-breaking work along the way -- the Kander name signifies a certain style. "Broadway razzle-dazzle" you might call it, borrowing a song title from the Kander & Ebb canon. Kander's work has sometimes been glitzy, sometimes highly emotional, and sometimes grim -- but almost always arresting. This applies not only to new musicals but to revues as well. I suppose that if some amateur group somewhere fashioned their own, unauthorized Kander & Ebb jukebox show, the aforementioned style would carry over.

But little of that Kander is on display in The Landing. Yes, there are some items that we can recognize as "real" songs -- more on that later -- but this has the feel of a Kander show without songs. Incidental music, underscoring, lines sung to music, all of the above. But show tunes?

What is The Landing, anyway? A one-act, four-person evening consisting of a triptych of three unconnected minimusicals. This is the first new show the 86-year-old composer has written since the death of his long-time collaborator Fred Ebb, in 2004. (Ebb left several incomplete projects, which have kept Kander busy in the interim.)

For The Landing, Kander joins forces with a lyricist/librettist who is a full fifty years his junior. Greg Pierce is not without a resume of his own, his most notable credit being the 2012 Slowgirl (which was the inaugural production at Lincoln Center Theater's rooftop Claire Tow Theatre). Even so, the collaboration on The Landing -- and Kid Victory, another musical he is presently writing with Mr. Kander for the Vineyard -- surely owes something to the playwright's famous uncle: David Hyde Pierce, who won a 2007 Tony Award in Kander's Curtains and who is not incidentally starring in The Landing.

The first piece is called "Andra," as in Andromeda, the beautiful princess in Greek mythology who was chained naked to a rock. A lonely, pre-teen boy lives in a big house, ignored by his tycoon father and distracted mother. Noah is befriended by the sensitive carpenter making cabinets in the kitchen, and the pair develop a tender friendship until Noah takes a telescope -- a present from the carpenter, so he can stargaze at Andromeda (the constellation)--and discovers his naked mother in her bedroom window making love to. . . Well, you can figure that one out, I suppose. Next up is "The Brick," in which another pre-teen is happily living with his eccentric aunt until she falls in love with a blood-spattered brick from the 1929 St. Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago. Hyde Pierce plays the brick, singing and dancing. And no, I'm not exaggerating.

The final piece -- "The Landing" -- is by far the strongest. A gay couple adopt a pre-teen boy who is too good to be true and altogether mystical. (This one seems to hark back to Paul Osborn's On Borrowed Time, if you know what I mean.) While I can't tell you how the show came about, one might reasonably infer that Kander & Pierce started with this final piece. Once they determined it wasn't strong enough to bear the weight of the full evening, they went casting about for other ideas. Like the dancing brick.

By the time they reach the third piece, the die is already cast. Nevertheless, the show commands attention. It culminates with two songs which sound like Kander -- and strong Kander at that. "Weren't We a Family?" builds with the swelling emotion the composer has demonstrated so often in the past. While the lyric is somewhat unclear, the music is a joy to hear. The final song, "Thanks for That," is somewhat abbreviated but nevertheless prime Kander. It's heartening to know that he's still got it, even if it's somewhat hidden through most of this unusual evening.

Let it be added that the piece is directed by Walter Bobbie (of Kander's current Chicago), who does what he can under the circumstances. The cast is uniformly helpful. Hyde Pierce is his usual self, which is all to the good. His crisp line delivery helps. A lot. Young Frankie Seratch does a fine job in his three roles, especially as the enigmatic child in the final piece. Paul Anthony Stewart is impressive as the carpenter in the first and Pierce's partner in the last, while Julia Murney makes the most of her material.

But a 'new Kander musical' this new Kander musical isn't, not quite.