Paper-thin 'Paper Moon'

July 28, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

EAST HADDAM, Conn. -- "Paper Moon" isn't a movie that cries out to be made into a musical. That's largely because the 1973 Peter Bogdanovich film starring Ryan O'Neal and his daughter, Tatum, was essentially a two-person road story that took place in car.

But this hasn't stopped composer Larry Grossman, lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh, book writer Martin Casella or his brother, director Matt Casella. They had a go at it in New Jersey in 1993 and are now at it again in a revised production, currently at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House, that is scheduled to move to Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre Sept. 21.

The old-fashioned musical they've created has several peripheral Baltimore connections. The first is that the songwriting team of Grossman and Fitzhugh initially worked together on "Grind," a musical that played a pre-Broadway run at the Lyric Opera House in 1985. Though "Grind" flopped on Broadway, the score was lovely and has been recorded, and while "Paper Moon's" score is less interesting, it has a nice lilting sound suitable to the show's period setting.

Secondly, the Goodspeed -- a restored Victorian opera house dedicated to preserving old musicals and developing new ones -- is perhaps best known as the theater that launched the now-classic children's musical "Annie." A 20th anniversary revival will be presented there in the fall, and another version returns to Baltimore's Mechanic Theatre in January as part of a national anniversary tour.

There are certain unmistakable similarities between "Paper Moon" and "Annie." Not only are both shows set in the Depression, but also both heroines are orphaned little girls seeking fathers -- in "Paper Moon's" case, the potential dad is a con man who shows up at the girl's mother's funeral and reluctantly agrees to drive her to her aunt's home in Arkansas. Furthermore, several of "Paper Moon's" songs bear more than a passing resemblance to their counterparts in "Annie," particularly Someday, Baby," an analog to "Tomorrow." Even the orphan's name, "Addie," is remarkably close to that of the Goodspeed's darling Annie.

Nonetheless, "Paper Moon" is unlikely to become the next "Annie," at least in terms of Broadway. Instead, it belongs in smaller theaters where hometown audiences can share in the down-home relationship between Addie and her con man/father-figure, Moses (Moze) Pray.

Conceivably with this in mind, the cast and sets of the Goodspeed's production have been scaled down significantly from the overblown, abortive 1993 pre-Broadway production. For instance, the $80,000 automobile in the earlier version has been replaced by the suggestion of a car, represented by upturned suitcases -- one for each rider.

Fans of the movie will notice some minor changes in the plot of the musical, which is also based on the movie's source, a 1971 novel called "Addie Pray," by Joe David Brown. Moze's love interest, exotic dancer Trixie Delight, is now a more prominent character. (She is luxuriously played by buxom Julie Johnson, whom Baltimoreans may remember from "Das Barbecu" at Center Stage and "Heartbeats" at the Mechanic.) In addition, some of Moze and Addie's adventures on the road have been streamlined -- a step in the right direction, although the streamlining goes too far in a scene in which Moze is inexplicably beaten up.

VTC The performances are serviceable but lackluster. Mark Zimmerman's Moze never has enough edge to create a genuine conflict between him and 11-year-old Lindsay Cummings' Addie. And although Cummings is credible as a more shrewd con artist than Moze, she lacks the vocal prowess to sell Addie's big -- and rather complex -- number, "Who Belongs to Who?"

In the end, "Paper Moon" is essentially paper-thin -- charming, but slight. The movie was so touching and evocative, the musical doesn't really have much to add; even the familiar strains of the E.Y. Harburg-Harold Arlen title song are overlooked on stage. The result, to borrow a song title from "Papermoon's" Goodspeed cousin, "Annie," is a musical that deserves to see "Tomorrow," but not in the big leagues to which it once aspired.

"Paper Moon" will be performed at Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, Conn., through Sept. 13. For ticket information, call (860) 873-8668.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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