Ultimately, the musical stage version of the 1984 coming-of-age film comedy, THE FLAMINGO KID, in its world premiere at Hartford Stage begs the question – with no compelling answer – of why it was made into a musical. Despite a Tony-award winning director and writer/lyricist, a seasoned Broadway composer and a uniformly skilled cast, after 2 and half hours, 21 songs (plus 5 reprises), THE FLAMINGO KID never achieves real engagement, energy or excitement for all its estimable effort.
It’s the summer of 1963, and faced with another ho-hum, hot and humid season in a Brooklyn tenement, Jeffrey Winnick, high school senior and only son of plumber Arthur and housewife Ruth, itches for adventure. His pals steal him into El Flamingo, a ritzy, private Jewish beach club on Long Island, and before he knows it he’s parking lot attendant, then cabana boy, fallen in love with Karla, a smart, sexy California girl visiting for the summer, and finds a mentor in Phil Brody, the big shot, car-dealership owner who’s the club’s money-winning king of gin rummy. (Jeffrey's a natural at the game, too.) Smitten with is new-found high life, Jeffery spurns his parents modest way of life, rejects his father’s plans for college for him, and falls for his mentor’s promise of turning him into an ace car salesman. When the phony and corrupt nature of Brody’s status gets exposed, Jeffrey sees the folly of his ways, returns his future’s rightful path and redeems himself in his father’s eyes.
The book by Robert L. Freedman, who put Hartford Stage on the Broadway map with his deliciously urbane, Tony-winning A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER, seems stifled by the predictable and plainly straightforward movie script. In fact, there is very little book in this musical version; this KID moves from song to song to song with little interstitial dialogue. The songs (too many of them) by talented composer Scott Frankel (GREY GARDENS, WAR PAINT) are a hodgepodge of musical styles. The most effective evoke, but never enough, pop songs of the early 60s. One yearns to hear more that reminds of Martha and the Vandellas or Four Seasons. Think: beach/ transistor radio/ top 40/ the "77 WABC" jingle.
There’s no earworm in this score. Still, some musical numbers are high points: “Sweet Ginger Brown”, which Brody breaks into after winning at gin; “Cabana Boy” where the club matrons express their sexual infatuation with the new hire in tight-fitting shorts; and “”Rockaway Rhumba” an ensemble dance that brings to mind Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana”. “Blowin’ Hot and Cold”, the best ensemble number in Act 2, and “She’s No Angel” , both with hints of doo-wop, sound more early 60s pop than anything else. The other 3/4s of the songs neither sound 60s nor habe any definitive style at that. The least successful tune - the solo “This Is My House” - falls on veteran actor Adam Heller, as Jeffrey’s plumber dad, who deserves yeoman credit just for getting through the dreadful number. The score lacks coherence; this KID never finds its musical voice.
Incoherence and curious context visit Freedman’s book too. Near the end of the play, when Jeffery finds his true path in life, he proclaims, in an appeal to 2019, anti-Trump emotion, “There’s something to be said for honesty and hard work. And I don’t want to live in a country where those values don’t matter anymore”. (Cue audience applause.). But just before, Brody calls the club’s dance instructor, who’s captured the attentions of his wife, “feigele”, Yiddish derogatory slang for gay. (Now we’re back in 1963. The audience let that one slide.) Curiously, the second act spends a lot narrative time on the back stories of Brody's wife, Phyllis, and Jeffrey's mom, leaving on the card table, as it were, Jeffrey's commanding skill at gin, which is turnkey to the plot.
Newcomer Jimmy Brewer as Jeffrey Winnik sings well enough. He telegraphs that wholesome, “such a nice young man” looks but never musters real empathy; Jeffrey’s still kind of a schmuck for having rejected his parent’s bread-and-butter values. The two actors who fare the best embrace the cartoonish nature of musical comedy supporting characters. Marc Kudisch summons the phony-baloney bravado of a used car salesman and makes Phil Brody as real as the blowhard we all know at the gym. Leslie Margherita plays the bored, spoiled, cocktail guzzling Phyllis Brody with panache even is if she borrows Elaine Stritch camp too much.
Denis Jones’ choreography, now seen in TOOTSIE on Broadway, is unremarkable here. Linda Cho’s costumes, largely in a summer pastel palette, are a mix of late 50s JC Penney catalogue and pre-Ralph Lauren prep shop, with some Las Vegas glitz sprinkled in. Alexander Dodge’s frames the proscenium stage in some op-art geometric structures that recall the set for 60sTV’s “Hullabaloo”. Five different chassis modeled on 50s and 60s classic cars motor in and out. (No surprise, Jeffrey's "loser" father gets the Edsel.)
Director Darko Tresnjak amazingly keeps KID - his last production before leaving Hartford Stage - afloat, although it comes perilously close to sinking in a moribund dinner party scene at the Brodys. Darko can't seem top find much tension in KID’s critical scene, where Jeffrey discovers what a fraud Brody is at gin rummy and then challenges him in a game to expose it. FLAMINGO KID seems more assembled than directed; all the pieces are there, but the whole is less than the parts.
Darko, who since 2011 at Hartford Stage has birthed such award-winning, international commercial hits like GENTLEMEN’S GUIDE and ANASTASIA, taken risks with new, provocative dramatists and, in his Shakespeare portfolio, consistently and boldly refreshed the works of the greatest playwright of all time, will be remembered rightfully for his body of work in Hartford not THE FLAMINGO KID.
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