WILLIE STARK -- At the Kennedy Center Opera House through May 29.
People are bringing so much emotional and cultural luggage to "Willie Stark," Carlise Floyd's new "musical drama" at the Kennedy Center Opera House, that it's difficult to see over it to what is actually happening on stage.
The associations and expectations may be with the Robert Penn Warren novel, on which the show is based, or with the celebrated film version of that novel; or with the character of Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, on whom Stark is based, or with one or another analysis of Long's life. Or with all of the above. There is much buzzing in the hallways about the differences between "Willie Stark" and the legend as previously told in various forms.
But if you were to arrive empty-handed -- or to be able to check these encumbrances at the door -- what would you see?
Just a feisty, shirt-sleeves politician who employs the traditional method of influencing key votes through personal research on the voters -- but whose conscience troubles him when he does. He's seeing his assistant's fiancee on the sly -- but he's a widower who brings her home to his elderly mother and invalid child, and who longs to stop sneaking around and marry her. As far as we are shown, the voters, who love him, would only benefit from his continuing in office, and the people he destroys to do so are only those who are living off the gains of dishonesty.
Not a bad politician or person, on the whole, no different from many local bosses, and not really a threat to anyone. Remember -- this is not one of the Longs or Starks you have seen before. As played by Timothy Nolan, this Willie is attractively peppy, but hardly a lizard-on-the-rock combination of fascination and evil. Alan Kays as the disillusioned assistant is a bit of a wimp; Jan Curtis, as Sadie, whose brains are still being used by Stark but not her body, is like a shopping-bag lady; and Julia Conwell, as the fiancee, is a stiff glamor girl whose emotions are less interesting than her fox pieces.
None of this would matter if the music were exciting, but Floyd's atonal score, which often overpowers the words, goes against, rather than with, the Southern wheeler-dealer atmosphere. Two minutes of banjo and fiddle onstage are more poignant than all the heavy pretentiousness coming from the orchestra pit. And even that wouldn't matter if the words were stirring, but they run to such clinkers as "To get the power to do good, a man has to sell his soul" and "I'm feeling so much and I can't put a name on it" (the missing word being "love").
What this production does have is staging, masterful staging, with groups choreographed to form and re-form in evocative patterns. This has been done by Harold Prince, most recently of "Sweeney Todd" and "Evita," against Eugene Lee's striking background of marble steps studded with radios and walls carved with noble words.