Review: Resurrected 'Pipe Dream' drags, forced

MARK KENNEDY AP Drama Writer Published:

NEW YORK (AP) -- In 1955, the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical "Pipe Dream" was in trouble -- and John Steinbeck knew it.

"The show sidesteps, hesitates, mishmashes and never faces its themes," the author wrote to Hammerstein while the show was in out-of-town tryouts.

He was right. "Pipe Dream," a musical based on Steinbeck's novel "Sweet Thursday," made it to Broadway and ran for a respectable 246 performances, but lost money and is considered a flop in the wonderful Rodgers and Hammerstein cannon, which includes "Oklahoma!" ''South Pacific," ''The King and I" and "The Sound of Music."

New York City Center has bravely dug up a revised version for a short run that started Wednesday as part of its Encore! series, which unearths forgotten or problematic musicals for a second look.

It's a brave move because despite boasting a great cast -- Will Chase, Laura Osnes, Leslie Uggams and Tom Wopat -- the musical's plot is improbable, dragging and forced, while the songs themselves are, on the whole, forgettable and odd, as if the songwriters themselves lost interest halfway through writing them.

This "Pipe Dream" is smartly directed by Marc Bruni with Rob Berman in charge of a 30-piece orchestra and lively choreographed by Kelli Barclay, including a nice drunken party scene and an inventive dance between the hero and his younger self.

But this production has to carry around the baggage of the 1950s, mainly its stuttering love story between a marine biologist (Chase, at his studly best) and a pretty vagrant (Osnes, proving again her wonderfulness). They are put together by a whorehouse madam, Uggams, working honorably hard in a role originally written for Metropolitan Opera star Helen Traubel.

Not many musicals try to pair a Ph.D. scientist who peers at starfish in California tide pools with a homeless woman who may -- or may not -- be a part-time prostitute living in a cramped boiler room. Maybe there's a reason for that.

The musical does bring to life some of Steinbeck's Cannery Row characters but since they are pretty shiftless, there's really nothing going on. There's also a clear lack of jeopardy, unless you consider the scientist having to write an article on his findings peril. And the will-these-two-crazy-kids-just-kiss-and-love each-other plot? The rushed manner in which they end up together involves a rigged lottery and a broken bone that the hero doesn't even recall busting. It's as if everyone writing the show just gave up.

Some of the standout songs include "Ev'rybody's Got a Home but Me," ''The Next Time it Happens" and "All at Once You Love Her." (A recording of the live show will be released by Ghostlight Records this summer.) But none reach the heights of the classic tunes written by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

In the end, hoping "Pipe Dream" might survive its own flaws was a bit of a pipe dream itself.