I REMEMBER MAMA. Music by Richard Rodgers; lyrics by Martin Charnin and Raymond Jessel; book by Thomas Meehan; based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Kathryn Forbes; scenery by David Mitchell; costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge; choreography by Graciela Danielle; directed by Cy Feuer.
With Liv. Ullmann, George S. Irving, George Hearn, Elizabeth Hubbard, Dolores Wilson, Betty Ann Grove and Mauree Silliman.
At the Majestic Theatre, West 44th Street, New York City.
"I Remember Mama" has been through the ringer and it looks as tired as it has every right to be.
The saga of its tortuous trip to Broadway - of producer Alexander Cohen's determination in the face of all the unkind words from the Philadelphia critics and the show's dispossessed lyricist/director Martin Charnin - will live in the annals of theatrical persistence.
But the work that finally opened Thursday night at the Majestic Theatre will be remembered, if at all, only, as Liv Ullmann's first musical and Richard Rodgers' 40th.
Like the Kathryn Forbes book and the John van Druten play, the musical concerns the gentle ups and downs of a Norwegian immigrant family in pre-World War I San Francisco.
A maiden aunt wants to marry, but her undertaker-suitor hopes to eke a dowry out of her cantankerous and presumably rich uncle.
The family cat is mauled in a fight, and the mother has to get up the gumption to chloroform it out of its misery. (When she does, however, the cat mysteriously recovers, inspirating the children to credit their mother with divine powers.)
Above all, there is the problem of money. The family's meticulously apportioned budget makes every school notebook or new pair of shoes a crisis, but the mother, not wanting to frighten her children, pretends through it all that they have a bank account downtown just waiting for a rainy day.
These are small-scale problems but, as Forbes and van Druten treated them, real ones. As adapated by Thomas Meechan (who wrote the book to "Anni"), the material has been pumped up and stretched out like a piece of piedough in the hands of a clumsy pastry chef.
Instead of one brief encounter over the dowry issue, for instance, the uncle and the undertaker make a running gag of it, with the marriage being repeatedly approved and disapproved. Virtually every subplot, including this one, is manipulated toward a concurrence of hokey, heartwarming resolutions at the final curtain.
And in his desperate grab for the heartstrings, Meehan has sacrificed the color and detail that are the underpinning of any honest nostalgic sentiment. Except for the Larses and Nilses and Katrins in the cast of characters, this could be Anygroup, Anytime, Anytown, U.S.A. (The dialogue abounds, too, with lines that are out-of-period or out-of-character. A woman novelist, in 1910, boasts of her refusal to resort to "sex and violence." A pre-adolescent girl makes a sophisticated pun about how a picnic is never truly a picnic without "aunts."
The lyrics, some credited to Charnin and some to his replacement, Raymond Jessel, are indistinguishably vacuous. Oscar Hammerstein may have had a simple heart, but his imagery and technical ingenuity gave a depth to the songs he wrote with Rodgers, from "Oklahoma" to "The Sound of Music," that is nowhere to be found in "I Remember Mama."
Throughout all this show's fracases, Richard Rodgers maintained the public silence of an old pro and went on writing music at what must have been a hurried pace. But the music that wound up in "I Remember Mama" appears to have been composed with even less joy than time.
Ullmann's work, like Rodgers', is hard to criticize in isolation. A slightly coarse and conspicuously milked voice, a tentative sense of pitch and many earthy smiles are the impressions that register.
But if the Mama of the book and play has been abandoned for a synthetic product, the librettist, lyricists and director (now Cy Feuer) seem to have participated just as eagerly as the star in the effort.
After three appearances on Broadway ("A Doll's House" and "Anna Christie" were the first two), Ullmann has been advised by some to weigh a return to the screen or Scandinavia - or both.
Certainly, her portrayals of an immigrant mother's struggles in the Jan Troell films "The Immigrants" and "The New Land" were far more skilled and forceful than her work in "I Remember Mama." But she has shown more than enough flashes of brilliance onstage to make any blanket conclusions premature.
So Liv and let Liv.