OH, BROTHER!, book and lyrics by Donald Driver; music by Michael Valenti; director, Donald Driver; scenery, Michael J. Hotopp and Paul De Pass; lighting, Richard Nelson; costumes, Ann Emonts; orchestrations, Jim Tyler; with Bruce Adler, David-James Carroll, Harry Groener, Judy Kaye, Larry Marshall, Mary Mastrantonio, Joe Morton, Alyson Reed, Alan Weeks.
At the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through Oct. 24.
For the time being, the operative title of "Oh, Brother!," the pre-Broadway musical that opened last night in the Eisenhower Theater, should probably be "Oh, Bother!"
It is a loud, frenetic show that is clearly at war with itself. On one hand, it yearns to be a musical comedy of the old school, drawing its bumps and grinds and a shower of risque one-liners from the world of vaudeville. On the other hand, it wants to serve up social and political satire, inspired by the headlines out of the Middle East. However, neither hand manages to join the other in the course of the evening, and the resulting hodgepodge, for all the noise and flash, is vaguely depressing.
I'm not sure that the problems don't lie at the very heart of the show; and while certain numbers may be spruced up and others pruned in the four weeks to come, the musical will still be left with very split loyalties. And as has been said of houses, a show divided against itself cannot stand.
Director Donald Driver, who is also the author of the book and lyrics, has had the less-than-happy notion to update Shakespeare's "A Comedy of Errors" and set the action somewhere in the general vicinity of Iran. Exactly where is never specified, and neither the shag rug that serves as the desert sands nor the confusion of costume styles is much help in providing an answer. Since the unnamed country has just undergone a revolution, finds itself in the grip of a virulent brand of medievalism and has as its ruler an Ayatollah Khomeini look-alike, you may be forgiven for thinking what you think.
The show, however, is not about to insist. In fact, the main business of the plot is the succession of mix-ups that occur when two Americans, one white, one black, come looking for their long-lost twins. If you remember Shakespeare, you know what happens. Marriages get disrupted, mates get swapped, money gets mislaid, tempers get hot and pratfalls get taken before the muddle is sorted out. "A Comedy of Errors" is one of Shakespeare's sunniest efforts -- as close as he ever got to bedroom farce.
But plunking all the pandemonium down in the chaos of the Middle East today just doesn't work. Forget the fact that Driver's book is peppered with paltry puns and cheap shots. We simply know too much.
Whenever the chorus of Arab soliders marches on stage and fires rifles into the air, we are jolted back to harsh realities. The show attempts to make light of all the fanaticism and hysteria afoot in that part of the world, but I don't think jokes alone do the job. Certainly not Driver's. Depicting the ayatollah as a senile old man with a child's beach bucket and shovel fails in two respects. It is not a very funny ploy on its own terms, and it is entirely too feeble, as satire, to do much damage to its subject.
Michael Valenti has written an engaging score, but its true worth is diminished by the company it is obliged to keep. The songs are making pleasant noises, you see, and the show is making a ruckus. One of Driver's unfortunate lyrics refers to self-abuse, while another rhymes OPEC maiden with bangle-laden. Driver's lyrics and staging also camp up "That's Him," a young Arab woman's dream of happiness ever after, so that Valenti's soaring melody is all but for naught. And the final number, the upbeat title tune, is actually sung in the course of a prayer meeting, with the full cast prostrate.
The performers are generally energetic and good-looking, and they give their all, which is, under the circumstances, just a tad too much.
Harry Groener registers pleasantly as Western Mousada, probably because he is not forced to behave quite so maniacally as his twin, Eastern Mousada, played by David-James Carroll. As Eastern Habim, Joe Morton displays musical gifts that are superior to those of his twin, Alan Weeks, who is Western Habim. Morton, however, has to make most of his entrances on a skateboard. As the love-starved OPEC maiden, Mary Mastrantonio sings beautifully and acts wretchedly, while Judy Kaye, as a scorned Arab wife by way of Minsky's, struggles gamely to keep the idiotic innuendo of her lines from dragging her down. Kaye does get a torch song in Act Two, "What Do I Tell People This Time?" In any other show, she would bring down the house with it.
Surely improvements are planned. But it's hard to see how the central dilemma can be conquered. Shakespeare placed "A Comedy of Errors" in Ephesus. What Elizabethan knew Ephesus? Sad to say, too many of us know the Middle East. And it seems a sorry place to set a musical romp.