The 1962 musical No Strings is famous for two things: this is the only show for which Richard Rodgers wrote both music and lyrics and Diahann Carroll won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical as model Barbara Woodruff, becoming the first African American actress to do so and propelling her to international fame. (Her co-star Richard Kiley, though nominated for the Tony Award, had to wait for his star turn in Man of La Mancha in 1966 to give him his statuette.) The show also won Rodgers his only solo Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Show Album, as well as his second Tony Award for Best Score.
In its time, it was controversial for its interracial love story, and the reason given for its film version cast with Burt Lancaster and Nancy Kwan never being made was that it was too hot a property for Hollywood in the 1960’s. Never given a major New York revival, No Strings was presented by New York City Center Encores! as a staged concert production in 2003 with James Naughton and Maya Days.
Following its opening production of Cy Coleman’s equally rarely seen Seesaw, J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company is presenting a fully staged version of No Strings as the second production of its inaugural season. While No Strings, set in the Paris world of high fashion and the French watering holes of the very rich, would need a much more lavish staging to do it justice, Deidre Goodwin’s production does have its charms though the show’s book by playwright Samuel Taylor seems particularly thin by today’s standards. The songs are melodic and hummable though there is no breakout winner among the 14 musical numbers.
Beginning in 1962 Paris, No Strings brings together American expatriates David Jordon, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist from Maine, and Barbara Woodruff, an African American from Harlem and the highest paid fashion model in Paris, introduced by photographer Luc Delbert at a cover shoot for Vogue. Barbara, who has a protector in rich bon vivant Louis dePourtal who is not her lover, is not impressed with David who has been bumming around Europe for eight years seeking a good time and has let writer’s block keep him from doing any serious work, while Barbara has worked her way up the ladder and always pays her own way. He pursues her after meeting her again at a party in her honor and they admit that they have fallen in love.
When he takes her to a borrowed house in Honfleur, he finds every excuse not to write and goes off to Deauville and St. Tropez and meets friends. Barbara returns to Paris where she takes up her modeling career again. David follows her and proposes marriage, saying they will live in his home town in Maine where he will get down to serious writing. Unfortunately, they realize that in the America of 1962 they will not be accepted in a small fishing village in Maine and that Barbara’s place is in Paris. They part with the understanding that they will meet again someday.
The title No Strings has two meanings in the show: Rodgers wrote the score to be played by only percussion, drums and wind instruments, without a string section, as well as writing a title song in which David and Barbara declare that they need nothing to hold them together, “no strings at all.” The composer had never liked the fact that his musicians had to sit in a pit on Broadway and adventurously had them on stage, often strolling around among the actors and the action. These included a clarinetist and a flautist. The new orchestrations by music director Grant Strom for percussion, piano and flute loses much of the flavor of the original score.
While the original production was noted for director/choreographer Joe Layton’s use of movement by the ensemble who also moved the scenery around and often stood in for scenic elements, director Goodwin’s choreography is rather too busy and much of it looks the same. The score gives David and Barbara several songs which they both sing (“The Sweetest Sounds,” “Nobody Told Me, Look No Further, Maine, the title song and reprises of two of them) but hardly ever allows them to sing together as if suggesting musically the gulf between them.
Playwright Taylor, who had written light romantic comedies until then (Sabrina Fair, The Pleasure of His Company, and the later Beekman Place and Avanti!), wrote some brittle dialogue but a great deal was left to the actors who are basically playing types rather than people. Although written during the Civil Rights Era, the musical avoids any consideration of this conflict, never mentioning Barbara’s race until David realizes that their marriage would never work back in the United States. The book to No Strings has no likeable characters all of whom are mercenary, predatory or looking for nothing but a good time: kept women, kept men, models and playboys on the prowl. Hero David Jordon is a wastrel squandering his talent (a Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, only his second book) and Barbara Woodruff has taken up with a series of rich patrons in her search for money and love.
The casting of Cameron Bond and Keyonna Knight would seem a perfect fit. Physically Knight fits the script’s description of Barbara as being beautiful, having style and wearing clothes well. Ruggedly handsome actor Cameron Bond playing the Hemingway-esque author is believable as the playboy living off of his friends, and his resonant baritone does justice to Rodgers’ melodic songs. Unfortunately, Knight as Barbara does not have the passion and fire that Diahann Carroll exhibited even on the original cast album. She also does not bring to the role the needed anger that would make her dialogue and characters seem less superficial than written. The songs also do not sit well in her vocal range particularly in the higher registers. She misses the fervor and intensity of the scorching “You Don’t Tell Me,” and does not quite carry off the irony of “Loads of Love” in which she says she is only seeking lots of love and money (rather than fulfilment or satisfaction).
The rest of the cast acquit themselves well as people with whom Barbara works and David’s American hangers-on and expatriates. Sandy York is best as acerbic Vogue editor Mollie Plummer who resembles all those female second banana roles in Hollywood movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Anne Wechsler as millionairess Comfort O’Connell from Tulsa, Oklahoma, taking the grand tour on daddy’s money is amusing as an unsophisticated girl who can buy all of her pleasure and she is a fine member of the up-tempo production numbers, “Be My Host,” “Love Makes the World Go,” and “Eager Beaver.” As her current love interest Mike Robinson, Patrick Connaghan (who twice appears with a trumpet) is fine as a mercenary swinger. Luke Hamilton and Annabelle Fox add comic relief as the very French photographer and his assistant who have their lover’s spats in French and in public. Tim Ewing is very believable as Barbara’s wealthy Parisian protector Louis dePourtal.
While the show has outdone itself on the costuming, there are hardly any production values other than some café tables, a bench and a drinks cart in Ryan J. Douglass’s scenic design which sports a model of the Eiffel Tower in front of the rear scrim. Matthew Solomon’s costumes are a veritable haute couture collection both for the fashion models and the other characters with one exception. Barbara first appears in a striped coat and a striped dress that would be fine separately but together clash violently, something a fashion model would never wear together. The unobtrusive lighting by Ethan Steimel suggests several times of day in the course of the musical.
J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company’s second outing is much more successful than its first one with Seesaw, but like that other show No Strings is a minor musical that needs an exquisite production to pull it off. Deidre Goodwin’s staging makes this a pleasant enough evening in the theater but does not make the case for this as a lost musical worthy of reevaluation. However, this is a must see for completists who have not had a chance to see a full production in New York of this Richard Rodgers musical since the 1962 – 63 theater season.
No Strings (February 27 – March 8, 2020)
J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company
Theatre Two at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-3200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: two hours with one intermission