Naive Pretensions of Dude
by Clive Barnes
The New York Times - October 10, 1972

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Inchoate energy has its attractions and there were big and powerful gobbets of theatricality hanging around all over the Broadway theater, where Dude made its bow last night.  But this godson of Hair never quite makes it.  Its pretensions are always clearer than its achievements, yet even those pretensions are not without a certain naiveté that might endear the show to come.

The music is by Galt MacDermot who, of course, composed Hair and the book and lyrics are by Gerome Ragni, who was that musicals co-author.  And the staging is by Tom O'Horgan, who made history with the broadway version of that same hirsute phenomenon.  But those wonderful folks who gave us Hair, here give us a brave try.

Nothing seems to have been done on a small scale.  The interior of the theater has been ripped out and reconstructed to provide a new kind of auditorium, which I found attractive and versatile.  The main stage - placed where the orchestra usually is - has become a kind of circus ring.  Above the ring are trapezes hidden by greenery and the like.  The actors run along rostrums, walk up aisles, while the orchestra is suspended right up in left field.

this type of staging is not particularly unusual, yet it does have a freshness for Broadway, and seems a real attempt to involve the entire audience for a big musical in a closer relationship with the cast than is customary.  Mr. O'Horgan gives the show a roaring vitality, which, while occasionally overbearing, does have that gut-busting zest that has become O'Horgan's hallmark as a director.  There is also an almost gothic sense of fantasy to his work;  he has the manic imagination and innocence of a child indulging his nightmares in daylight.

Mr. Ragni is an artist of the same jib.  But here the lack of discipline to that imagination, a freedom that proved so charming in Hair, chains the musical down instead of liberating it.  In Hair the very aimlessness of the piece, its random poetry and shafts of insight could afford the luxury of a nonstructure because it was describing a life style that deliberately embraced nonstructured patterns as its aim.  Dude, on the other hand, seems to be an allegory about "that great theater in the sky", and an allegory that is not clear, even on its primary level, is in no end of trouble.

The idea of Dude, or what I can make out of it, is both complex and simplistic.  It is, I presume, an attempt to demonstrate once more that all the world's a stage and the actors Jesus-people at their symbolic heart.  It is about the loss of innocence.  God (or someone remarkably like him) is called #33 and enters the scene in approved deus ex machina manner from the sky.  He is helped by three ecologically minded goddesses, Mother Earth, Bread, and Suzie Moon, and hindered by a bad guy Zero, with an entourage called Esso and Extra.

Two actors turn up, Reba and Harold, who are under the impression that they had been engaged to play in "Richard III".  Willing to do anything for their art, they become Adam and Eve, are tempted by Zero, and have a little boy, Dude.  Dude grows up, is tempted by some very strange brands of sex and drugs, and succumbs.  Reba and Harold blame each other in their suburban home, but #33 comes on at the end, assures that life is just show business, Zero is defeated and the world is made safe for peace and innocence.

Apart from the primitive naiveté of the book the show's major thrust rests on MacDermot's music - loud, strident, over-amplified and yet often effectively powerful.

MacDermot's music is still basically rock, but it has more variety than it had in the days of Hair.  Strong elements of gospel singing find their way into the score, together with more than a smidgen of country music.  There are some passionately lyrical numbers here, especially those of #33's ecology matrons, yet the music never flies to those melodic pinnacles of hair.

This is the kind of show that has the cast sweating almost before it starts, and Mr. O'Horgan has deployed his forces with a military desperation in a situation never quite lost but never far from grim.  The cast starts by running around the theater on some crazy, but oddly exciting marathon, and from then on the players work like galley slaves being chased by an unfriendly galley.

William Renfield and Rae Allen as the actors might well be playing in a different play, and have the worst written parts.  It is to their credit that they play them with such expertise.  Salome Bey, Delores Hall and Nell Carter are full-throated and huskily ecstatic as the ecological deities, Ralph Carter and a beautifully unself-conscious little boy, Nat Morris, excel as the two ages of Dude (Editors Note: Mr. Barnes seems to have confused Nat Morris and Ralph Carter; Carter played the boy Dude, and Morris the older Dude.), and Allan Nicholls deserves applause for his charm and a bronze for his long-distance running.

dude is described as "The Highway Life", and I suspect that it was not on the highway long enough.  Another couple of weeks of previews might have made a vital difference to a musical that aspired high but fell short.

Copyright The New York Times Company.  All rights reserved.

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