Thursday matinees, almost uniquely scheduled in Manhattan by The York Theatre Company, are always interesting at York but yesterday's program of a musical reading performance of LOLITA, MY LOVE, based on Vladimir Nabokov’s sensational 1955 novel, and talkback that followed was especially entertaining. York presented the 1971 failed musical, with book and lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner (of Lerner & Lowe MY FAIR LADY renown) and music by film composer John Barry (11 James Bond movies, Out of Africa, etc), as the third and final of its “Musicals in Mufti” series of almost forgotten Lerner musicals. (Mufti meaning in street clothes: here without the trappings of full production.)
Script editor Erik Haagensen, Richard Rogers Award winning playwright, spent the better part of 4 years hunting down and editing together six versions of Lerner’s script he found in various archives and special collections. Four of the scripts were from tryouts in Philadelphia and Boston, where producers pulled the plug. Two more scripts came from re-structured versions that Lerner wrote after Boston anticipating an eventual Broadway run, which Haagensen allowed would have been directed by Mike Nichols, but that went nowhere.
The score reconstruction was more challenging. Music director Deniz Cordell was stymied in his efforts, principally he said in talkback because ALL of John Barry’s early work was destroyed (including his original work for Goldfinger and early Bonds, Born Fee, etc.). Cordell’s breakthrough came when musical theatre aficionado and score collector Richard C. Norton, who attended this performance, made available to him a recording of a tryout performance.
The performance itself was captivating, full of freshness and vitality. Lerner’s adaptation, wholly faithful to Nabokov story of Hubert’s obsessive relationship with his teenage stepdaughter, created a court psychiatrist to whom Hubert confesses his tale. Smartly, in the York production, the psychiatrist is female. Emily Maltby directs, and though the entire effort remains Nabokov true, the York performance offers a novel women’s parallax in the age of #MeToo and #Times Up. Thursday Farrar plays the no bs psychiatrist Dr. Ray, Caitlin Cohn is a deliciously knowing Lolita and Jessica Tyler Wright, Lolita’s comical/pathetic mother . George Abdu is the debauched Clare Quilty with whom Lolita runs off and whom Humbert hunts down. Most impressive is Broadway veteran Robert Stella as Humbert. A talented ensemble of ensemble of 7 backs them up. The company got the show up with just three days of rehearsals.
Fittingly, Lerner’s lyrics are witty and worldly, laced with sly satire. (Recall he HAD adapted Shaw’s PYGMALION when other’s said it couldn’t be done.) Most noteworthy, the performance of LOLITA, MY LOVE was like a master class in how song and book work consistently hand-in-hand, even here with 19 songs and a half dozen reprises. Even alone at the piano, Mr. Cordell expressed the pleasing rhythms and harmonies that imbue Barry’s marvelous score. Lyrics matter. Melodies, too. Songs advance character and plot. Call me old-fashioned, I don’t care.
On a personal level, I found more pleasure in York’s bare-bones performance of LOLITA, MY LOVE than I had in most of the fully staged (and expensive) Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals I’ve seen so far this season. The talkback had a particularly celebratory feel: multi-Tony Award winning composer Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie, Golden Boy, Applause, Annie, etc,) - now 90 - attended the performance. Before the talkback the company assembled for a group photograph with him. All in all, an unexpected and perfectly entertaining and edifying afternoon of American musical theatre.
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