Let us have a moment of silence for the Broadway musical, that glorious institution that used to lift hearts and brighten the skies.
Let us have another moment of silence for director Harold Prince, who once was to the Broadway musical what the Fairy Godmother was to Cinderella.
And now let us weep for "Grind," the $5 million musical, currently trying out at the Lyric Opera House.
On "Grind" rides more than just the hopes of its investors. For Broadway, which has next to nothing to show for the current season, it is one of the last chances to save face before the Tony Award nominations are announced. So far, every other musical this season has closed in a flash. If Prince, who is directing "Grind," and Ben Vereen, who stars in it, cannot pull off a miracle, the Tony for best musical could conceivably go to the abortive "The Three Musketeers," the highlight of which was a horse trotting down the aisle. Right now, "Grind's" shortcomings so outweigh its virtues that maybe the horse should start preparing an acceptance speech.
"Grind" takes place in and around a Chicago burlesque house, circa 1933. Backstage, the black strippers and the white comics manage to dwell in relative harmony, but the city streets, "knee deep in bums," throb with racial tensions. The sleazy setting is promising; not unlike that of "Cabaret," it wants to wed low-level glitz to the rumble of social and political discontent. And the book, adapted by Fay Kanin from a screenplay, has lots on its mind -- at least three potentially interesting story lines. But dramatic coherence, as yet, does not appear to be one of its concerns.
The basis of the plot is an interracial romantic triangle -- composed of Leroy (Vereen), a happy hoofer whose general response to bigotry is to grin and bear it, much as he does in his role as top banana; Satin (Leilani Jones), the pretty stripper determined to shed the poverty of her youth along with her clothes; and Doyle (Timothy Nolen), a drunken Irishman who is yanked from the gutter to become a straight man in the blackout sketches.
Second, there is the saga of Gus (Stubby Kaye), the baggy-pants comedian who is going blind and has "lost his funny" and the will to live. Then there are the club-wielding rowdies, the show's equivalent of the Brown Shirts, who go about smashing kids' bicyles and roughing up derelicts, and finally stream down the theater aisles to trash the burlesque house itself.
Just what "Grind" is working toward is hard to tell, since it hops about disconcertingly, never getting to the crux of the three-cornered romance, for example, until well into the second act. The point seems to be that in a fascist storm, even a burly can't save you from the hurly. Leroy loses the girl, but his consciousness is raised -- and radicalized -- in the process.
None of this, however, is very sharply delineated. Even more to "Grind's" detriment, it features a lackluster score by Ellen Fitzhugh and Larry Grossman that can't hold a spangle to the strippers' G-strings. Grossman's best melodies always seem about two steps removed from catchy. The torch songs never quite flame. The blowzy burlesque tunes are all bounce and no bite. It is symptomatic of the show's problems that the most powerful number, a spiritual titled "These Eyes of Mine," is given to a tertiary character, the burlesque house's costume lady. Carol Woods intones it vibrantly, but it remains largely tangential to the plot.
Likewise, choreographer Lester Wilson fails to capitalize on the raffishness of "Grind's" setting. (One drools to think what Bob Fosse might have wrought from so many pelvises and hips.) Wilson's novelty numbers for Vereen and the strippers are the sort that make Las Vegas lounges the dreary places they are. And even hot red lights can't hype up Vereen's big second-act dance turn, which apparently is meant to fulfil the same function in "Grind" that Donna McKechnie's sizzling solo did in "A Chorus Line."
Vereen, having acquired more avoirdupois than is healthy for someone who makes a living with his feet, has lost much of the angular kineticism that made him such a galvanizing force in "Pippin." "Grind" desperately needs a star performance at its core, but this time Vereen is like the soft nougat center in a bonbon. Jones has the looks, the voice and the spunk to score as the stripper, and probably would if her material were stronger. On the other hand, Nolen, as the feverish Irishman haunted by ghosts out of his mysterious past, comes on like delerium tremens. The hallucinations are finally explained in "Down," but despite Nolen's sympathetic portrayal, the character is infected with terminal melodramatics.
Kaye, resembling an old paste pot in plaid trousers, is moving as the failing comic. But Joey Faye, who actually labored for years in the vineyards whereof "Grind" purports to speak, is wasted. And buxom Sharon Murray, peeling off a Shirley Temple party dress and shaking her assets for all their worth, gets no breaks with "Timing," her one moment in the burlesque spotlight.
Clarke Dunham's set -- a decadently opulent stage, which revolves to reveal three stories of cluttered dressing rooms connected by corkscrew staircases -- is a knockout. Ken Billington has lit it evocatively in bruised shades of pink and blue, and Florenz Klotz's costumes are triumphantly seedy. But the pulpy atmosphere goes only so far. Director Prince still seems to be operating at the jigsaw level, forcing together pieces that do not fit.
"Grind," as it stands, is hardly likely to diminish the gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts that passes for normal behavior on Broadway these days. Serious changes are already afoot in the show, which has until mid-April before the New York critics take a look.
Get out the prayer rugs.
Grind, by Fay Kanin; lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh; music by Larry Grossman. Directed by Harold Prince; choreography, Lester Wilson. With Ben Vereen, Leilani Jones, Timothy Nolen, Stubby Kaye, Joey Faye, Lee Wallace, Carol Woods, Sharon Murray. At the Lyric Opera House, Baltimore, through March 16.