.home | art & architecture | books & cds | dance
| destinations | film | opera | television | theater
Those old enough to remember the 1952 film,
Hans Christian Andersen, generally have fond
recollections of a charming movie. Watching the videotape half a century later is a bit of
a shock. Memory has clung to the positive accomplishments of the film and forgotten that
the storyline is minimal and rather silly; the look of the film, though lavishly produced,
is stagy, artificial, and saccharinely kitschy; and Farley Granger's performance is at a
level of awfulness that induces grinding of the teeth.
All of those negatives, however, were overcome by three key
ingredients: the extraordinary source materials of the Andersen stories, the songs of
Frank Loesser, and a radiant performance by Danny Kaye that glows with talent, charm, and
utter conviction for the material.
A new, original stage production has now premiered at American
Conservatory Theater, presumably en route to Broadway. It was conceived and developed by
director/choreographer Martha Clarke with writer Sebastian Barry.While they bill the show
as "based on the Samuel Goldwyn Motion Picture," they have wisely left most of
the film behind, drawing only on the Loesser songs and, of course, on the Andersen tales.
While the film carefully states that it is not a biography of Andersen, but "a fairy
tale about this great spinner of fairy tales," the new show attempts to use the
writer's life story, as recalled from his deathbed, finding in it the motivation and
inspiration for the creation of tales that have become an integral part of the Western
cultural heritage. It's an intelligent approach, promising a more intriguing, more adult
take on Andersen and his work.
Unfortunately, Sebastian Barry's script doesn't rise to the
opportunity. It is episodic, without any dramatic line whatever - its disjointed pieces
could be rearranged randomly and not seem any more or less a cohesive whole. There are
welcome excursions into the darker, real-life side of Andersen: family poverty, his dotty
grandfather, his father's failures, his delayed education, his bullying schoolmaster, his
unrequited love for Jenny Lind. But not for a minute is any of this felt by the
viewer because none of the characters are developed sufficiently to be more than fleeting
Had the central character of Andersen coalesced, the other problems
might have faded, but John Glover seems miscast and has not found a unifying core for this
character. While his performance has some fine moments, particularly when he is telling a
tale, Glover is unable to overcome the book's fatal weakness - a diffuse and unfocused
portrait of the hero. Glover's performance is further undermined by his weak singing voice
which more than once was painfully off key.
What is unique in the production is Clarke's staging. Well known for
her flying choreography, Clarke here has mermaids swimming fluidly about the stage (an
image directly from the film), several Andersen alter egos flying in and about, a child
floated away by a bunch of balloons. Closer to the stage surface, the harness arrangement
allows skaters to glide, and other characters to float in and out of scenes in a
wondrously effortless and fluid fashion. The settings (Robert Israel), costumes (brilliant
Jane Greenwood), and lighting (Paul Gallo) are all first rate and the orchestrations of
the Loesser songs by Michael Starobin have a fresh Broadway sound.
Still, production values and flying choreography seem mere Band-Aids on
a book and a central performance that are in need of major surgery. The Loesser songs
generally don't soar as they should and the show starts to take on an air of desperation
when, for example, the bouncy love song, "No Two People," for no apparent reason
other than to add a grim note, is sung by a couple about to be hanged, nooses wrapped
around their necks. (The audience laughed, not in sympathy, but in embarrassment.) And you
know the show is in deep trouble when they throw in a gratuitous - really cute,
but gratuitous - dog.
Francisco, September 7, 2000