Musicals Tonight! is giving this forgotten show its first New York revival in a concert version directed by Thomas Sabella-Mills. While the stage musical lifts the plot of the movie, it leaves out most of the elements that made it a classic example of screwball comedy. It also doesn’t script the wonderful gags of that consummate comedienne Carole Lombard who created the role of Hazel Flagg, a young woman incorrectly diagnosed with radium poisoning. It misses the satire, cynicism and the pungency of the movie which ironically are the exact elements which make the 1975 musical Chicago (thought to have been ahead of its time) work so well all these many years later. Even underrated comedian Frederic March brought more layers to his role as Wallace Cook than are written into Hecht’s musical which flattens and deflates what should be a hilarious role of the unscrupulous journalist who will do anything for a story. The other problem with the show is that the songs do not advance the plot but bring it to a standstill and the lyrics by Hilliard (previously a writer of pop songs) tend to be repetitious and serviceable rather than witty or clever.
Hazel Flagg follows fairly faithfully the plot of the 1937 film Nothing Sacred, but with its deletions and lack of stage business it diminishes the original. (The hilarious scene with the team of eccentric European doctors is missing.) When Hazel Flagg of Stoneyhead, Vermont, is told by Doc Downer that she is dying of radium poisoning from her job at the watch factory, she is thrilled that she will be able to finally have her long-awaited three-week trip to New York with her bonus. After she becomes a heroine to the whole town, the doc discovers that he has made a mistake and that she is fine. When Everywhere Magazine sends ace reporter Wallace Cook to offer her a deluxe all-expenses paid trip to New York in order to get an exclusive on the story, she decides to keep mum about her true condition and have some fun.
When she becomes the darling of New York, Wallace decides to bring in experts to see if something can be done about her “condition.” Fearing exposure for herself and Doc Downer who has accompanied her, she reveals the truth to Wallace with whom she has fallen in love. She then has to find a way to keep all of them including Wallace’s boss, publisher Laura Carew, from being indicted for fraud. Hazel Flagg’s happy ending is much more upbeat than the cynical ending of the movie but less satiric.
The trouble with dramatic properties written around uniquely talented stars (Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, Groucho Marx, Barbra Streisand, etc.,) is that it is very hard to find someone to step into their shoes for revivals. Mimicking their performances doesn’t usually work either. Kristin Chenoweth may have just proved herself to be the new Carole Lombard in the musical revival based on Hecht and MacArthur’s Twentieth Century, but there is only one such star a generation. While Savannah Frazier demonstrates she is a versatile actress, as acted and directed her Hazel does not have the zaniness it needs for this outrageous plot. So too Jason Mills as ace reporter Wallace Cook is too bland and nondescript to make much of an impression as a political reporter rather than the movie’s perpetrator of many frauds. Annie Edgerton throws herself into the role of the publisher, but without the blusteriness that made Walter Connolly so much fun, it doesn’t work as well. However, in all three cases the libretto doesn’t give them much help or guidance.
In the event, some of the minor roles come to the fore to pick up the slack. In the role of Doc Downer that won Thomas Mitchell a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, Jody Cook is expansive, wry and quick-witted as the rural doctor suddenly up against the city slickers. Chaz Jackson steals the show with his hilarious western routine in the production number “Salomee” performed as a night club act at the Mayor’s luncheon. Chuck Ragsdale’s comic Parisian – and chic – couturier Maximilian Levian is a delightful parody. Alan Gillespie makes a good deal out of Laura Carew’s assistant Oleander. Rob Lorey is an elegant Mayor of New York City but fails to make the role his own.
The score is second-rate Styne but does have its charms. Aside from the immortal, “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York” the score includes the melodic “The World Is Beautiful Today,” “How Do You Speak to an Angel” and “I Feel Like I’m Gonna Live Forever,” all lacking in memorable lyrics. Frazier’s Hazel lets it rip with the show-stopping, “Laura de Maupassant” which sounds like a Cole Porter song cut from Silk Stockings or Can Can. Mills shows what he can do with a song with the restored numbers, “Money Burns A Hole in My Pocket” and “Something in the Wind,” both cut from the show before opening night. Musical director and vocal arranger David B. Bishop does yeoman service trying to give the score an upbeat tempo.
Sometimes stage properties that have been forgotten are lost for a good reason. Hazel Flagg is one of those shows. Jule Styne completists, however, will be glad for an opportunity to at last see this 1953 show. The one thing this show will do is send you back to the classic movie to see what all the fuss was about.
Hazel Flagg (through March 29, 2015)
Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.musicalstonight.org
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission