There's room for music in Wilder's `Skin'

Review: "Over & Over," a musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth," bursts engagingly into song.

February 08, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

With its humongous theme of the survival of the human race, Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth" might seem a tough play to turn into a musical.

But "Over & Over," the adaptation by famed songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb ("Cabaret," "Chicago") and librettist Joseph Stein ("Fiddler on the Roof"), proves both jaunty and engaging.

From its very conception, this world premiere musical at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., has had a lot going for it. For starters, there's the overt artificiality of the source material. Wilder included an announcer, an on-stage stage manager and plenty of direct-audience address, particularly on the part of the sexy maid, Sabina. In the play, she protests: "I hate this play and every word in it." In the musical, that becomes: "Why can't we have musicals like we used to have?", as Sherie Scott's impertinent Sabina launches into a few bars from "Annie," "Man of La Mancha" and "Fiddler."

It's thoroughly in keeping with the tone and format of the show, therefore, to suddenly have characters burst into song, or, for that matter, into production numbers. And, yes, there are production numbers, even in this small-scale production, choreographed by Bob Avian and directed by Eric D. Schaeffer in his 136-seat theater, a converted auto-bumper factory that has garnered a national reputation for musicals.

Furthermore, the immense scope of the show's subject and themes -- which also include love, war and what would now be called "family values," and which span millenniums, from the Ice Age onward -- certainly merit a gesture as broad as singing.

And, what better team to set Wilder's quintessential survival tale to music than Kander and Ebb, who specialize in musicals about beating the odds, whether in a prison, as in "Chicago" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" or Nazi Germany, as in "Cabaret"?

With all of that on the plus side, "Over & Over," which has already undergone considerable revision in Arlington, still needs more tinkering.

The "Prologue," in which a parka-clad chorus sings, "We're gonna freeze to death," is hokey. "The Skin of Our Teeth" is a play about four members of a nuclear family, the Antrobuses, and their home-wrecking (in all senses) maid. Sabina closes the musical, standing alone on stage, speaking directly to the audience; that would seem an appropriate way to begin it as well.

Stein retains the bulk of Wilder's play, but he also makes some welcome cuts, especially the excision of a didactic scene in which actors portray the hours of the night, each representing a philosopher. But there are some rather odd additions, such as the number, "Someday, Pasadena," in which Sabina, a die-hard movie fan, dances with a half dozen hoofing gouchos as she imagines life in sunny California.

And Broadway veteran Dorothy Loudon leads several of the show's bigger numbers despite playing three secondary roles. The result is that her commanding stage presence overwhelms her function. In a sense, her roles can be viewed together as an older, more cynical version of Sabina, but in the show's current form, that interpretation is a bit of a stretch.

Kander and Ebb's score displays the songwriters' usual flair of variety. There's a jazzy, live-life-to-the-fullest number, "Eat the Ice Cream," sung by Sabina; a touching romantic duet, "As You Are," sung by long-married Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus; a minor-key rant, "Nice People," spewed by their mean-spirited son, Henry; and even a touch of barbershop harmony in "A Whole Lot of Lovin'."

The performances range from fine to superior, the latter exemplified by Scott's naughty-but-adorable Sabina and David Garrison's all-too-fallible, sometimes-discouraged, but basically decent Mr. Antrobus, inventor of everything from the alphabet to the wheel.

Although no plans have been announced for "Over & Over" after its Signature run, New York producers and representatives of regional theaters around the country have peppered the audience on a regular basis.

It's a bit difficult to look at the show in such a minuscule theater and imagine its impact in a vast Broadway venue. A future production would benefit from glitzier and wittier sets than those designed by Lou Stancari, but overall, this is a musical whose scale probably shouldn't get too grand.

Big as its themes may be, "Over & Over" is essentially about one small, stalwart family -- a family that, as this auspicious premiere proves, has a lot to sing about.

`Over & Over'

Where: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, Va.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 21.

Tickets: $28 and $30. (Run is sold out, but standby tickets go on sale one hour before performance.) Call: 703-218-6500

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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