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 outlines.
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.