"Comin' Uptown," last night's lavishly appointed new musical comedy at the Winter Garden, made me think of basketball. It's only the final minutes that really count. All evening long, you wait for Gregory Hines, who's been asked to carry far too much on his slight shoulders as a black Scrooge, to break loose and go into his dance, which he eventually does to joyous effect. But the rest of the evening is a ponderous bore.
This is "A Christmas Carol" in a Harlem setting, and even the show's title, amplified in the opening chorus "Christmas is Comin' Uptown," is a little baffling, suggesting, as it does, that the holiday is a Harlem novelty.
In tons of pleasantly atmospheric but unwieldy scenery, and scads of preponderantly flashy costumes, we move first from a vividly decorated 125th St. to Scrooge's office (he's a Harlem slumlord now), and then to the mean man's gloomy bedroom. From there, after a visit and a song by his late partner Marley, amusingly portrayed by Tiger Haynes, the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future - they are always accompanied by three buxom beauties in eye-catching sets of costumes - take the bent, old, pajama-clad, but somehow jaunty Ebenezer on their rounds. In one, he gets to cavort quite nimbly with the chorus, but still with a collapsed midsection.
Scrooge revisits his love of 30 years before, Mary, at a lamppost; he peeks into the Cratchit dining room, observing a crippled Tiny Tim; he comes upon his own grave after watching Tiny Tim's burial procession, and he is reformed. Shedding his nightshirt, he orders Chinese food and Jewish delicatessen for the Cratchits, the only fare available this Christmas morn (and the sole amusing touch I can recall) and, while still on the phone, dons shirt, snazzy blue pin-stripe pants and vest, and tap shoes, and, after singing a song called "Born Again," leaps and taps his way about the bedroom, the gifted song-and-dance man at last comes fully into his own. A brief coda with a happy Cratchit family leads into the closing chorus, and the show is done.
"Comin' Uptown" which shouts its extravagance, looks as though its authors and sponsors were intent on creating another "Wiz," and unfortunately for them, they have, but without the style that overcame the earlier black musical's shortcomings. The book Philip Rose and Peter Udell have derived from Dickens (Rose also directed the book) is perfunctory and achieves a kind of desperation in an arbitrarily inserted gospel number set in a Baptist church, a number quite outside the story and obviously assumed to be surefire with its female soloist and the minister and congregation in support, but that doesn't catch fire at all.
But the worst letdown of all are the songs. Garry Sherman, who has provided his own lively orchestrations and vocal arrangements, has composed a set of completely undistinguished tunes, fitted out with equally commonplace lyrics by Udell. And the sound of those disembodied voices coming from the battery of speakers to either side of the proscenium is like a din in spite of the ministrations of a sound engineer in a sizable control booth in the rear of the house (perhaps he can't hear too well back there).
While Rose's dialogue direction is satisfactory, Michael Peters' busy dance routines are as stale as the music accompanying them.
Saundra McClain is engaging in a variety of roles, including those of Scrooge's old flame and Christmas Present. John Russell, though he has little to do, is an entertaining Cratchit. For some reason, Larry Marshall's Christmas Present is a nimble young boxer in a silken robe, whereas Robert Jackson's Christmas Future is a gaunt figure in a gauzy black body suit.
Everybody tries hard, but it's a devil of a nuisance waiting all night for Hines to straighten up and fly right.
Gregory Hines, the star of Comin' Uptown, which opened mid-town at the Winter Garden Theater last night, is an explosive force and should probably be patented. No one ever becomes a star overnight, but some nights the firmament is kind to you and you finally get noticed.
Hines, who played Scrooge as if he were riding a motorcycle in a horse race, will never have to be discovered again. The guy's terrific, whether he is acting with woebegone grace, singing with a soul-like beat and a heart-like bleat, or simply dancing up Hurricane Gregory and suggesting he is the best tap dancer in the world since Bill Robinson.
Yet as the old joke has it: "But what did you think of the play, Mrs. Lincoln," and for an answer, as another old joke puts it, like the curate's egg, it was "good in parts."
This new musical adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol is calculated to make Dickens shake rather more than Marley's ghost, but it has a most winning vigor, a spanking vitality, a gold garland of performances, and particularly in its design image, a very special and attractive style. For Christmas it is a natural - although this up-dated Harlem Christmas deserves to be worth more than a mere holiday season.
There are difficulties. The book by Philip Rose and Peter Udell is as pedestrian as a tortoise, and Udell's lyrics prove scarcely more nifty. The music by Garry Sherman ranging from disco to gospel, is brash, electric, loud, over-amplified, yet not unduly distinguished. It is scarcely the kind of music you would want to go out humming even if your memory were fast enough to permit such a feat.
So with a book as flat as Holland in the rainy season and music that has an insistently recycled air as if you had heard it before, you might well wonder what could be done. Oddly enough quite a lot - probably enough to make this the surprise musical sleeper of the season.
Rose as director is a far different operator from Rose as author. He starts the show at steam-heat and never really lets the temperature fall. Robin Wagner has contributed some very beautiful and ingenious settings that give the show a perfect style of its own and offer the one truly Dickensian touch to the evening.
Rose keeps the whole thing bubbling like brown sugar. Unhappily the first act is far too long and should either be cut, or the balance of the two acts could have been rearranged.
This is obviously an extremely dancey show - everyone around here swings a wing - indeed at times it is almost more like The Nutcracker than A Christmas Carol, and the prime element of Michael Peter's choreography is pure, flagrant energy. And it is given with brilliance.
Apart from the sometimes flawed creative elements here, what makes this such a happy and unexpected Christmas present to Broadway is the extraordinary cast, where in addition to the quite extraordinary Hines, no one puts a foot or tonsil wrong.
The three portrayers of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future, are Larry Marshall as a sort of razmatazz Muhammed Ali, Saundra McClain, apparently as a sports coach, and Robert Jackson, as a gleefully ghoulish mod interpretation of the Great Reaper in disco pants. All Christmases are supported by the same trio of attractive women, Deborah Lynn Bridges, Deborah Burrell and Jenifer Lewis. Dressed with scanty abandon these three women make a knock-out trio.
The driving force of the show is, nevertheless, that dynamo called Hines. When he does his final tap number, taking out every stop in sight, throwing all caution to every wind he can scent, you get to see a great performer in almost shattering action. No he is not an overnight sensation. Remember him stopping almost the entire street in Eubie? But if you thought the man was good in Eubie, my friends you ain't seen nothin' yet.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas with Comin' Uptown, and if you miss it than try it on for Easter.
There's a body of opinion around town that dismisses the practice of reviving classic musicals on the grounds that we'd be better off with new musicals at any price. In the case of "Comin' Uptown," the new musical at the Winter Garden, I'd say the price was too high.
You can take that literally. There is more expensive, though not particularly attractive, scenery on the Winter Garden's stage than this updated, all-black version of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" can possibly find any use for. Acres and acres of snow-laden brownstones glide by as miserly old Scrooge - not so very old as that remarkable dancer, Gregory Hines, plays him - starts out on his journey into Christmases Past. Though why we must also have a dizzyingly tapered backdrop composed entirely of black-and-white windows billowing high above us, I don't know.
I don't know that it's entirely necessary to drop an enormous, empty-faced clock from the heavens, either, just so a live girl in a sequined body stocking can go leaping through it several times. Perhaps the clock is dropped so that the show's electrician can turn it a luminous green, while at the same time Miss Body Stocking turns a luminous purple. These things are accomplished, all right, but they don't get Scrooge where he's going any faster and they're old-hat besides. In "Sugar Babies" phosphorescent scenery is kidded, not trotted out to be treated by the company with a respectful awe.
In any event, the talented Mr. Hines has much to awe him as he looks backward to his youth and then forward to his unmourned death. There's a complete Baptist church presided over by massive statues of trumpeting angels, a ghostly tumbledown graveyard knee-high in ground mist, a home for the Cratchits that spreads itself before us like a freshly cut cupcake. What Mr. Hines doesn't have, unfortunately, is a part to play or any real opposition to contend with.
Yes, this latter-day Scrooge can be briefly amusing as he counts his money by ear or pauses in prayer to close the lid of his cashbox (no need for the Lord's prying eyes to know what he's got). The dialogue he must deal with as he shuts down recreation centers, though, runs to "You got a right to beg, I got a right to refuse. That's what makes this country great!" And the Garry Sherman-Peter Udell songs aren't much more help. They're mainly conventional, moderately pretty music-box or bouncing-ball stuff, which might be all right if they had any emotional resonance. They don't.
For instance, at the end of the entertainment's first act Mr. Hines is free to apply his skidding, skittering tremolo to a number rather throbbingly entitled "Have I Finally Found My Heart?" He does it with energy and skill. His effort is waste effort, however, because librettists Philip Rose and Peter Udell haven't yet got around to establishing a relationship between this Scrooge and the Cratchits, not to mention Tiny Tim.
The Cratchits, en famille, don't turn up for the show's first 70 minutes. When they do, Mr. Hines gets one quick glimpse of Tim through a window. Instantly, he's belting out the aforementioned song, passionately asking "Am I feeling something for someone?" though there isn't a chance in the world of our believing he's felt anything for anyone. He hasn't had the opportunity. No base in the meandering story line.
The crusher for me, finally, came with choreographer Michael Peters's decision to keep Mr. Hines's antic feet under wraps until we were practically ready to go home. The performer does do a bit of period strutting during that first backward trek to his youth, but he's so constantly surrounded by a stageful of pretty, prancing, jumping-jack girls that he's hard to pick out. You keep waiting for some solo work, and are denied it in the rush.
At last, all too late, Scrooge is back in his dingy room and, a reformed fellow now, he leaps into uncontrollable jubilation. There's no one to obscure him, not even one more ghost, and he takes to his freedom like a riveter gone mad, spitting taps against the floor while his body slips dangerously sideways, staggering with unaccountable glee in the rhythms of a gangster being gunned down. He even keeps the delirium going while he's pretending to tap on his bed clothes, which is impossible. Perfectly splendid, and couldn't he have made us happier earlier?
A few other compliments in passing. Larry Marshall, as a Christmas Past in boxing trunks and fur-lined cape, sings exceedingly well ("Lifeline"), as does Loretta Devine as the girl Scrooge has kept waiting by a lamp post for the last 30 years ("What Better Time for Love"). Esther Marrow rags the scale in the beginning of a most promising gospel outburst, only to be covered over once again by a jiving ensemble fandango that robs her of a decent finish and the personal applause she surely merits. Tiger Haynes, as Marley in chains, applies some impeccably precise tongue work to "Get Your Act Together."
But our authors haven't got their act together, no matter what the song says. Despite the energy that's spent like money, the show won't move, prefering to play pretty much the same scenes over and over again. Scrooge is awakened in his room by so many spectral visitors that I thought he'd never get any sleep. And he spends so much time on the wintry streets in his nightshirt - along with his scantily-clad guides who seem to have borrowed their costumes from "Star Wars" - that I was sure they'd all be down with colds in no time. And back in bed.
"Comin' Uptown" is careless and costly, elaborate and enervating. God bless us all, Tiny Tim.