Pat Conroy's autobiographical novel "The Water Is Wide" would appear to be a solid foundation for a musical. Based on the author's experiences as a white teacher in a black school on an isolated island off the coast of South Carolina in 1969, it is brimming with sympathetic characters, liberalminded conflict and themes sufficiently uplifting to warrant breaking into song.
Furthermore, the story proved its adaptability to another medium, as well as its audience appeal, when it was made into the 1974 movie "Conrack," starring Jon Voight. Toss in the current politically correct interest in education and literacy, and "Conrack" -- now playing a two-month run at Ford's Theatre in Washington -- seems to be the right musical in the right place at the right time.
But while the time and place may be right, the musical isn't.
The script, by Granville Burgess, gets off to a good start as we witness the idealistic teacher's arrival on Yamacraw Island and the unconventional methods he adopts to instruct the minds and win the hearts of his young charges.
And Patrick Cassidy is thoroughly likeable as Conroy, whom the children dub "Conrack." Nor is it possible to imagine a more endearing -- or more talented -- ensemble of child actors. For that matter, the entire cast, nimbly directed by Lonny Price, does just fine.
And Gregg Burge's choreography cleverly turns the pupils' dance numbers into children's games, incorporating bits of leapfrog and patty-cake. Additional praise goes to designer Ann Sheffield for her rustic set with its winding wood dock and giant postcard backdrop.
But the show has two basic flaws. The score -- composed by Lee Pockriss with lyrics by Anne Croswell -- is largely lackluster or worse; it has a tendency to slip into dippy pop mode (Pockriss' previous credits include "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini" and "Catch a Falling Star").
A more serious shortcoming is excessive sentimentality. This stems in large part from a tacked-on romantic subplot involving Conrack and Jackie Brooks (Pamela Isaacs), a black Ph.D. inspecting schools for the federal government. Jackie didn't exist in the book or movie, but someone -- probably the script writer -- must have felt musicals need romance, and why not raise the stakes by making the romance interracial? However, instead of heightened tension or emotions, when Jackie and Conrack sing their big romantic duet -- fittingly titled, "Total Misfits" -- the action comes to a complete stop.
A few of "Conrack's" weaknesses could be overcome by excising Dr. Brooks and adding some grit to the score, but achieving the proper overall tone is a tougher challenge. It's almost as if Pat Conroy's original material has undergone a progressive sugar disorder in each new incarnation; the movie was sappier than the novel and the musical is sappier yet. One of the most effective small scenes in the movie occurs when Conrack teaches the children to brush their teeth. This musical is so sweet, he should distribute toothbrushes to the audience.
When: Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Thursdays at 1 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Through April 26.
Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth St., N.W., Washington.
Call: (202) 347-4833.