As many resident and regional theater companies do not have the resources for productions this big, it has been left to playwright Michael Weller (Moonchildren, Loose Ends, Spoils of War, Split) to do a new modern version reducing the cast size to nine. Reset in Coney Island in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, the world premiere has fallen to The Attic Theater Company which revived Weller’s Moonchildren in its first season in April 2009.
While the adaptation is lucid and clear and has been successfully Americanized, Weller leaves a great deal to the actors. The problem with the casting is that many of the actors are either wrong for these iconic parts or not up to the challenge. And after all, many people have seen this story in one its film adaptations: Charles Boyer in Fritz Lang’s French version of Liliom or Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in the Hollywood film of Carousel or Robert Goulet in the television version or one of the numerous community theater productions of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.
Weller’s version stays very close to the original and uses English names. However, he uses a sort of narrator cum magician named Dr. Ruhl as our way into the story and to play several minor characters. For those who not do recall the plot it concerns a popular though brash carousel barker (here called Jericho) chased by all the girls who falls hard for Julie, kitchen worker, on her day off and both of whom lose their jobs in order to stay together. When Julie gets pregnant, the unemployed and broke Jericho plots with his thuggish friend (Tynk) to commit a robbery. When it goes horribly wrong, he kills himself in order not to go to prison. After 16 years in purgatory, he has a chance to go back to earth and make things right for Julie and their daughter Lisa whom he has never met. The Depression milieu is used to explain why Julie and Jericho losing their jobs seems like a big mistake.
The problem with Laura Braza’s production is the lack of chemistry between Vasile Flutur’s Jericho and Hannah Sloat’s Julie. While Jericho should be charming and seductive, Flutur is only sinister and arrogant. Sloat is convincing at the innocent young girl routine but less so as the self-sacrificing woman in love where she comes off as rather bland. Just as McDonald walked off with the honors as Julie’s friend Carrie in the last Broadway revival of Carousel, Ginna M. Doyle is most believable as the friend here called Mary (Marie in Molnár’s version.) Vivacious and sparkling, Doyle lights up the stage every time she appears as a woman in love with an ambitious but conventional doorman who climbs the ladder of success. So too Jack Sochet as Jericho’s criminal friend, here called Tynk, devious to his last breath and as wily as a coyote, appears to be living inside of his character.
Many members of the cast playing multiple roles are better at one than the other. As Jericho’s aunt Ms. Hendricks, Erinn Holmes is much too passive, but as the Judge whom Jericho is brought before in the other place, she is first rate. Playing three roles, Jamal James is negligible as Jericho’s Cousin Fritz but makes a strong impression as an unrepentant Soul in purgatory. Jerzy Gwiazdowski as Dr. Ruhl turns up in several roles but seems to play them all as an otherworldly visitor as well as a magician with special powers. Stephanie Pope, the most well-known member of the cast with seven Broadway shows to her credit, who plays the small but important role of Mrs. Mosca, Jericho’s boss on the carousel and sometime lover, is rather one note as a rejected woman who still carries a torch for her man.
The Attic Theater Company has staged the show on a shoestring budget making Julia Noulin-Mérat’s three sets do for the six scenes. Unfortunately, the Coney Island boardwalk sets lack atmosphere which could even have been accomplished by Daniel B. Chapman’s colorless lighting design. Bevin McNally’s costumes are more definitely depression era than redolent of the carnival atmosphere that is being depicted.
Michael Weller whose last New York premiere was the misguided musical version of Doctor Zhivago has done a fine job of adapting Molnár’s Liliom to an American setting. Unfortunately, The Attic Theater Company premiere is not quite up to the task. Except for two of the secondary roles, the casting of Laura Braza’s production leaves much to be desired.
Jericho (through February 10, 2018)
The Attic Theater Company
The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd Street in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.theattictheaterco.com
Running time: two hours and five minutes including one intermission