Now that Musicals Tonight! has retired after a 20 year run, a new group specializing in revisiting worthy shows (both familiar and unfamiliar) with the somewhat unwieldy name of J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company has appeared to fill in the gap. In its inaugural season it has announced three rarely revived musicals which will appear at Theater Two at Theatre Row: Cy Coleman’s Seesaw, Richard Rodgers’ No Strings and Edward Kleban’s A Class Act.
First up is the 1973 Broadway musical, Seesaw, based on the 1958 two-hander, Two for the Seesaw by William Gibson. This is a strange choice as Seesaw was always a second-rate musical and owed much to the choreography of Michael Bennett and the dancing of Tommy Tune, neither of whom are associated with this revival. Based on a two-character play of which the original author himself wrote that the hero remained shadowy and the heroine ran away with the play, Seesaw remains basically a story of two strangers who get to know each other in New York.
The musical had a famously difficult out-of-town tryout in which the original director Edwin Sherin (working on his first musical) was replaced by Michael Bennett who took over the solo directing and choreographic assignments for the first time. Bennett also fired star Lainie Kazan as ballet dancer Gittel Mosca and brought in Michelle Lee who was more believable in the role, as well as dropping the book by Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, Hello, Dolly!, Barnum, 42nd Street) and bringing in Neil Simon, already a famed play doctor, for rewrites. As was his usual policy, Simon took no credit for the revisions to the book and Bennett put his name on it when the show finally opened in New York.
Seesaw is still very much a two–character story of Jerry Ryan, an attorney from Omaha, Nebraska, who moves to New York during his messy divorce from his wife Tess, his boss’ daughter. He looks up Bronx-born Gittel Mosca, a free-spirited dancer and East Village waif, who he previously met at a mutual friend’s party on an earlier trip to the Big Apple. Although Gittel is suspicious, needy and much more experienced, they begin an affair. However, the long shadow of Jerry’s wife Tess hovers over them. The minor characters are few and far between, plus being poorly delineated, so much so that they are not listed in the current program but called instead “Citizens of New York.”
The score, the second and final collaboration between Coleman and Fields who died the following year, alternates between big bouncy numbers like “Nobody Does It Like Me,” “Welcome to Holiday Inn,” and the show’s hit song, “It’s Not Where You Start (It’s Where You Finish)” and workman-like, pedestrian songs written with awkward lyrics that tend to fill up space. Two large production numbers (“Spanglish” and “Ride Out the Storm”) have been cut, and “The Party’s On Me,” used in the National Tour as well as the Equity Library Theater revival which featured Karen Ziemba and Bill Tatum in 1981 closes out the first act. The show also has basically the same plot structure as the earlier Coleman and Fields musical, Sweet Charity, a story of another lovable waif in which Neil Simon was the credited librettist. The show was also noted for its tour of Manhattan in its stylized sets by Robin Wagner.
Although J2 Spotlight’s artistic director Robert W. Schneider who staged this show has given it a vigorous production and cast a delightful Gittel in Stephanie Israelson, he is unable to disguise the show’s flaws. He is not helped by the trite, derivative choreography by Caitlin Belcik for a show that is mainly dance and has eight dancers out of a cast of nine. The many production numbers are both busy and familiar, and keep the ensemble composed of Kyle Caress, Chaz Alexander Coffin, Katie Griffith, Caleb Grochalski, Morgan Hecker and Halle Mastroberardino spinning throughout the show.
Andy Tighe is saddled with the underwritten role of Jerry Ryan, the provincial and uptight visitor from the Midwest who has not entirely gotten over his wife. Though he does his best with what he has been given, he cannot make the role his own. Israelson, however, a terrific comedienne, sparkles with the one-liners and putdowns which sound highly reminiscent of Simon’s best work while she creates a memorably endearing and independent kook who lives her life as she pleases. In the only other named role, J Savage as David, Gittel’s gay dance teacher and best friend (the role created by Tommy Tune), is a colorful personality. The hard working chorus plays all of the minor roles as well as peoples the street of New York as Gittel and Jerry make their way around town.
While the set design by Ryan J. Douglass is not attractive it is serviceable for the many New York locations and allows for quick transitions. The rather bland 1973 costumes are by Matthew Solomon. Ethan Steimel’s lighting occasionally offers some special effects. The new orchestrations by music director Grant Strom for a show that was known for its brass instrumentation is ironically played by a trio made up of Josh Marcum on bass, and Sarah Gartin on xylophone and glockenspiel, and Strom on piano.
However, as Seesaw has not had a New York revival since 1981, its very novelty may be a drawing card for theatergoers who know Cy Coleman’s better known shows but have never had a chance to see this one. Next up is the Samuel Taylor-Richard Rodgers No Strings which begins on Thursday, February 27 and runs through Sunday, March 1; to be followed by A Class Act, March 12 -22. It is to be hoped that this proves to be stronger material and is a better showcase for demonstrating the resources and talents of the new and ambitious theater company.
Seesaw (February 13 – 23, 2020)
J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company
Theatre Two at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission