London - Every seven or eight years, a show appears, swept up by some unstoppable zeitgeist which is destined to succeed no matter what obstacles are put in its path. "My Fair Lady" was such a show; "Hair" was another. Almost as often, there comes a show so irremediably hexed that no amount of salutary gris-gris can save it from catastrophe. Lionel Bart's "Twang" was such a show; so is the new musical "Isabel's a Jezebel."
The postponed opening, the last minute cast changes, the defensive publicity - all of these are futile gestures when diabolical toxin is running in the shows veins. And when the pinched, cramped and withered creature finally sees the light of day, even obituaries seem out of place. Confronted with a victim of a jinx, one can only cross one's heart, jump sideways, spit three times and hope the ill-natured demon has finally been sated.
The high hopes of "Isabel's a Jezabel" (which gave its first squeaks last spring in an unremarkable off West End production) were based on the fact that its progenitor, Galt MacDermot, was also the composer of "Hair." The choreographer, Julie Arenal, who gradually escalated into co-director with Michael Wearing, was also a "Hair" alumnus, having staged the Swedish, London, and Los Angeles productions of the musical. But compared with the hirsute extravagances of the original tribal romp, "Isabel's a Jezabel" suffers from alopecia. All of "Hair's" original impulses reappear as stilted imitations, and the choreography and staging try gauchly to animate a book which is irretrievably inert.
But it is unjust to fracture this show (as most London critics have done) by bopping it on the head with "Hair". This is a completely different creature, and intended to be. Based loosely on a Grimm fairy tale, the show intersperses short, sharp rock numbers among a series of recurring scenes between Isabel and her deep-sea lover. The couple spend all of their time either altercating or copulating.
Round about the third or forth repeat, one gathers that something rather weighty is intended on the subject of bringing children into a world committed to death. The repetitions are unfortunate in that they never allow us to forget the threadbare quality of William Dumaresq's script and the shallowness of his ideas. You are just recovering from one blast when you get another helping of the same.
Nor are the points strengthened by being sung after being stated. The book is so obsessed with obstetrics, hatpin abortions and fetal fatality, it suggests the work of a neurotic female mentality. There is a certain amount of wallowing in morbid clinical detail and more than a hint of psychodrama in the obsessive preoccupation with mute mother-figures and parental role-changing.
The only bright moments (two songs are certainly among them: "These Are the Things" and "It Just Can't Be That Bad") come where MacDermot digresses almost entirely from the story line and drops in one of those poignant, syncopated jobs that he can do better than anyone else.
The decision to reiterate rather than develop the show's material is laudable in theory, but defeating in practice. One can feel nothing for people who have not been properly introduced, and this is the show's elementary failure. It projects poignancy and passion through characters who have never really touched us in the first place, and so the effect is a little like being grabbed in the street by a total stranger and given an impassioned account of his nervous breakdown.
The other miscalculation has to do with the balance between story and song. Song, in musicals, can do so many things. It can further the plot , elaborate character, recapitulate the action, arbitrarily digress, etc., etc. In "Isabel," the plot marks time while the score either repeats what we have just been told or delivers highly diverting digressions. Even when the songs are good they subvert the show because, after the best peripatetic highs, one is returned to a static situation with a bringdown as harsh as cold turkey.
Carole Hayman replaced the lead just before the opening
night, which is a pretty hefty albatross to be slung around anyone's neck.
She is a tall, gangly, scalene-shaped girl with a head like cotton-candy,
and she brought nothing to her performance but a frantic attack and a sense
of trying to rescue both baby and bathwater, unaware that the show's authors
had provided neither. The rest of the cast, apart from Maria Popkiewicz
whose musical repose hovered like an indictment against the rest of the
cast's frantic activity, was scrappily avant-garde in the very worst East
Village tradition. Even John Napier claustrophobic fish-net setting
and inventive pop-up furniture couldn't improve the footling shenanigans
that took place in its midst.
Copyright The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.