Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Nutty in Nashville

On Sunday I saw the final performance of the "Nutty Professor" musical here in Nashville. Earlier, I saw the final preview, and the crowd was elated when Jerry Lewis himself came out at curtain call. (See my previous blog post.) Alas, there was no Jerry this time; he had left Nashville a couple of weeks earlier.

And I was very sad to learn that the show's composer, the late Marvin Hamlisch, never got to see the show onstage. He was in town for a welcome party on July 9th, but never made it back. (The first preview was July 24th; Hamlisch died on August 6th.) I really like his "Nutty Professor" score, apparently his last complete one for the musical theatre. No matter what happens with the show from this point on, I hope they will be able to record a cast album. The score is lovely and dynamic and fun, and needs to be preserved for posterity. The ballad "While I Still Have the Time" certainly makes for a poignant coda to Hamlisch's incredible career.

I'm glad I got the chance to see the show a second time, although any changes from the preview I saw were undetectably minor. It is certainly a very enjoyable show, though by no means perfect. Having done a lot of adaptations myself, I'm very interested in the concept of "adaptation" in general, and I'm intrigued with how Lewis' 1963 movie was turned into a stage musical. So this isn't intended to be a "review" of the entire production, so much as just an exploration of the show's structure.

I watched Lewis' Nutty Professor film just before seeing the preview, and probably four times more between then and the final performance. I think the film works on its own terms, more as a character study of Kelp/Love than anything else. There's one issue though that both the film and musical fail to acknowledge, and that's the propriety of a relationship between Professor Kelp and student Stella Purdy. I believe most colleges have strict policies against this, right? But it never seems to cross anyone's mind. Faculty members are banned from going to the Purple Pit, but I guess they're completely free to commingle with students anywhere else!

To be fair, even after seeing the musical twice, I can't remember if Stella actually becomes a student of Kelp's. Unlike the movie, she doesn't start out that way. But after Kelp teaches her a little about chemistry and she warms to the subject (and its teacher), does she then enroll in his class? I believe so, but don't remember for sure. But even if she doesn't, and isn't technically a student of his, that's a mere "workaround" on an issue that was probably pondered by every audience member at one point or another. I think it should be tackled head on; it could even be used to advantage as a plot point.

And speaking of plot, here's what I see as the show's main problem: While the film is full of interesting and amusing incidents, it's pretty skimpy on actual plot. And I'm afraid this holds equally true for the musical. There comes a point in Act II when I ask myself: "What exactly is happening? What am I waiting to see resolve?" Interesting things happen, to be sure, but the central conflict never really comes out into the clear. I suppose that conflict is "Will Stella see Kelp for who he is, and forget her infatuation with Buddy Love?" But since Kelp and Love are ultimately the same person, and Stella already seems half-sweet on Kelp anyway, there's a level on which it simply doesn't matter which she chooses.

Even in what is supposed to be a light and frothy evening, the story needs much higher stakes. Sure, Kelp is longing to be accepted for who he is, but we need something stronger to care about than that. The character of Miss Lemon has been greatly expanded from the movie, and that's fine, but she and Warfield remain decidedly peripheral characters to the main storyline. It's Stella and Kelp/Love that need to engage us, and give us something stronger to care about. The musical stirs a few new complications into the movie's storyline, but it doesn't really manage to raise the overall stakes.

I don't want to even begin to play script doctor here, but I can't help but feel that the answer lies in the character of Stella. Her fate needs to be hanging in the balance, in an important way, and so the Kelp/Love conflict must be resolved for the benefit of her personal welfare. Maybe Love is pulling her towards the dark, seamy, and dangerous side of life, while Kelp is trying to pull her towards higher education and "the light"? I don't know.

But I really hope this gets addressed in the musical's next step on the path to Broadway. The show has a lot of promise, and for many reasons it deserves to reach a larger audience. I hope that happens.

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