A Flop To Remember


October 13, 1991|By CARLETON JONES

For more than 200 years, some sort of dramatic playacting has been available in Charm City.

But it is likely that nothing ever presented here could equal the overpowering thud created by a show that came to town during World War II. This show, making its debut in Baltimore, arrived with good credentials and left with disastrous results. What made things worse was that its sponsor was one of four or five of the greatest showbiz tunesmiths of the early 20th century, Vincent Youmans.

The "Vincent Youmans Revue," a variety show to end all variety shows, lumbered into Baltimore's Lyric Theater one week in January of 1944, with Broadway hopes. Youmans had authored at least 12 top-sellers in sheet music. His "Tea for Two," "Time on My Hands" and a score of other tuneful cafe songs are unkillable. He is generally ranked with Gershwin, Kern, Porter and Berlin as one of the kings of early 20th century pop. And his song "Hallelujah" -- as big a hit as Gershwin's "Swanee" -- became the hopeful, driving theme of the inflationary 1920s.

In the 1930s, Youmans left Broadway and went to Hollywood, inaugurating the Latin American music boom on film and the Carmen Miranda age. He did this mainly with a dance tune that swept the world, "The Carioca," from the movie "Flying Down to Rio," and with other tunes from the movie, including "Orchids in the Moonlight" and the title song.

As for the Youmans revue, Doris Duke Cromwell, the tobacco queen, had provided $175,000 to mount the Baltimore debut. But a major handicap of the show was that it didn't showcase a single Youmans hit tune, as one might expect from the title.

A 12-year-old kid could have predicted the results. If ever there was a mishmash on stage it was the elaborately costumed Youmans revue, which enrolled the services of no less than two ballet companies at once. The whole mess was conducted by Max Goberman, a 32-year-old Philadelphia Symphony violinist, who tagged his 55-musician group "the first full symphonic orchestra ever to play in a musical revue."

Word was spread of the disaster before the final curtain went down. The Sun's drama man hurried back to the paper at the end of the first act, about 10:45 p.m., and wrote that the show was "not even a good rehearsal" and that it wouldn't survive its plot or its actors "both living and wooden." Bob Cochrane, the paper's music critic, added that Mr. Youmans had simply "gotten his muses mixed."

The show's two ballet companies were supposed to present six numbers, not just nice little waltzy throwaways, but daunting works like Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic "Antar" and (between midnight and 1 a.m.) the Baltimore debut of a ballet of Maurice Ravel's masterly "Daphnis and Chloe" suite, choreographed by the great Leonide Massine. Between acts, Youmans inserted a female Latin singer-guitarist to strum the songs of a Cuban tunesmith he admired, Ernest Lecuona.

An absurd continuity had been adopted for hanging all this together. Lavish puppets of celebrities, including Orson Welles, had been fashioned to perform between major production numbers. The whole thing was introduced by the recorded voice of Deems Taylor, the reigning Manhattan musical master, who stayed away from the show. His messages were played over "a loud speaker that worked most of the time," The Sun reported.

The silly puppet continuity was dropped by the third and last night of the show and so was Deems Taylor. But the dance numbers remained intact. One critic knocked one of them as rTC "something between a Minsky [burlesque house] runway and a course in eurythmics."

The show "limped on to Boston where it expired -- collapsing under the dead weight of its own pretentious aims," according to David Ewen, a chronicler of U.S. stage life.

Within a few days, a wonderful antidote to the show was in Baltimore: the opera "Porgy and Bess," with William Franklin, Etta Moten and Avon Long.

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