"Woman of the Year," which opened last night at the Palace, is a big, splashy musical comedy derived from the 1942 Hepburn-Tracy movie. It begins with a sleek, beaming Lauren Bacall, encased in a skin-tight, gold-beaded evening sheath, bathing in the audience's welcoming applause while behind a scrim she is being hailed as Woman of the Year at an award ceremony.
It's a hard act to follow. Impossible, in fact.
Not that the evening is a total loss. But, perversely, the scrappy love story involving renowned TV commentator Tess Harding (Bacall) and syndicated newspaper cartoonist Sam Craig (Harry Guardino) keeps letting us down, with the subsidiary characters picking us up in between times. Though Tess, now an aggressive morning home-screen celebrity calling to mind Barbara Walters instead of the Hepburn commentator suggestive of Dorothy Thompson, is a good role for Bacall and one she handles with aplomb, there's been a more drastic change in the co-starring part.
In place of Tracy's ace sports writer, which made for an entertaining and credible juxtaposition in the film, we have Guardino the creator of a krazy-kat comic strip called "Katz" to whose Bank St. (Bank St.!!) studio the lionized Tess rushes off in a snit (he's worked her into his strip) only to fall in love. Before you can say "So what else is new?" (that's the strip's unchanging tag line), she's wearing a jump suit and swigging bourbon straight with Sam and his poker-playing fellow cartoonists in a grimy saloon. So much for that "pet pailletted gown," in Cole Porter's phrase, though it does turn up again when the story catches up to the present.
I won't attempt to tell you how Peter Stone's book tries to surmount the film's famous climactic kitchen scene. On the other hand, Michael Sporn's animated cartoon sequences are often more fun than what's taking place on stage beneath them. Especially inasmuch as they're at least partially as real as the cast's miked voices.
The show's high point (we must forget that opening, uncomfortably like a magnification of the star's appearance at the start of "Applause" 11 years ago, and also leading into a flashback) is reached next-to-closing when a small, dowdy comedienne, turning up for the first time, rasies a pinched little singing voice with dead accuracy in a clever duet called "The Grass Is Greener." Her name is Marilyn Cooper, and she's a howling joy.
True, the other half of the duet conducted on kitchen stools is Bacall, smartly attired in sweater and jeans. But the star is serving as straight woman here and, though it's not her kitchen, must resort to shoving the stools under counters to get the stopped show started again.
Earlier, Roderick Cook and Grace Keagy, respectively Tess' secretary and housemaid, have enlivened things with a sniggering duet called "I Told You So." And just before that, they and the ensemble have suddenly quickened our interest with a gossipy piece about the topsy-turvy love match called "It Isn't Working."
And it isn't working. Somehow, the book, with all its amusing moments, doesn't hang together. On top of that, the songwriters - John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (words); a team hardly ever at a loss for a sock number - have left the two stars regrettably shortchanged. Particularly Guardino, though he manages to give an engaging performance.
The love ballads have a forced, tired sound, and Bacall's big song, "One of the Boys," is reminiscent of innumerable other zippy tunes, though it does allow choreographer Tony Charmoli to put Bacall and the ensemble through a sprightly dance routine. As a matter of fact, all of the musical staging is exemplary, and Robert Moore's direction of the book is expert.
Other principals include Daren Kelly as Tess' distressed "Early Bird" TV partner, and Eivind Harum as a king-size Russian ballet dancer who finds asylum in the Craigs' apartment.
Tony Walton's scenery (a false proscenium of TV screens, infrequently used as such, frames the action), Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes, Marilyn Rennagel's lighting, Michael Gibson's orchestrations, and Donald Pippin's musical direction are all slickly professional. But "Woman of the Year" rarely catches fire.
It takes no crystal ball to predict that Woman of the Year, the new musical that opened at the Palace Theater last night, is going to be a substantial hit. It is funny, it has zing, it has sass and it has Lauren Bacall. It also has some very attractive music and lyrics, a clever book, an air of class and a superior sense of imagination to it. In a word Women of the Year is terrific - not faultless but terrific.
The new musical is thinly based upon the venerable Tracy/Hepburn movie of the same title - but, sign of the times, the old newspaper office has been changed into a TV studio. The former strife between a sportswriter and a woman political commentator, has been updated to a newly styled battle between a lady who is a breakfast idol and knows almost as much about the world as Barbara Walters, and a newspaper strip-cartoonist who tries to personify the typical New Yorker with a cartoon cat.
The idea works happily. Our heroine, Tess Harding, one morning, at a loss for some editorializing breakfast corn, improvises an attack on the funny papers. Sam Craig, finishing up an all night poker session with some cartoonist buddies, switches on the box, and catches Tess' diatribe in full cry.
Sam sharpens his pencils for revenge. He introduces into his feline comic strip a new tabby in town, obviously based on the slinky Miss Harding. The elegant Tess is shaken, even hurt. (Anyone would think that Sam cauterized her in the National Enquirer rather than cartooned her in a New York daily - but that's celebrity for you!) But when Sam drops by her office...and the rest, of course, is everybody's guess. There is nothing deep or surprising here. This is Harding's Tess, not Hardy's.
The melodius score by John Kander and the witty lyrics by Fred Ebb mark their best collaboration yet for the musical theater, and that includes Cabaret. Most of the numbers are, reasonably enough, in a pastiche style of the '30s and '40s, which is perfectly appropriate for a musical which, for all its injections of topical zing, is essentially old-fashioned.
There are some good rousing tunes here - the best is perhaps One of the Boys, which a butch but charming Miss Bacall sings and dances with a male ensemble - and three dazzling chatter-songs led by Bacall, When You're Right, You're Right, I Wrote the Book and, The Grass is Always Greener. In these three Kander's ear for dry humor is handsomely matched by Ebb's verbal dexterity.
Peter Stone, who wrote the literate and engaging book, is no slouch in the verbal dexterity department either. It is not so much the fault of the book as the show's concept. Here the whole gypsy band of producers, there seem to be six of them, must be held responsible. Whatever the reason Woman of the Year is weakest at its beginning and its end, in January and December, as it were.
The show starts in a manner so static that you scarcely see it move - despite Miss Bacall's impassioned rendering of the title-song - and then creakily flashes back into the central narrative. The ending is almost as limp as a lame duck - but by that time it scarcely matters and the show has built up enough momentum to carry it through a brick wall let alone a final curtain. Yet both flaws illuminate the difficulties of adapting musicals from the specific narrative conventions of a movie script.
Robert Moore's direction - high on comedy and in blending it in with the music - and Tony Charmoli's musical staging, have all the right energy in the right places, and the performances have the triumphant air of a company that knows it is riding on a sure thing.
Miss Bacall is even better than she was in Applause. Impossibly but still attractively chic, mysteriously earthy, with a voice that sounds like Dietrich riding again with a Fifth Avenue accent, and a manner that is highhandedly amusing, Miss Bacall wins all hearts, and then looks as if she had won them at a crap game. The epitome of the tough charmer - the charming tough.
Her co-star, Harry Guardino, slouching along with embattled masculinity, makes the perfect foil for her hi-jinks. He sings well, and acts with a persuasive and totally convincing warmth. He also does splendidly when dancing and singing with an animated cat, Katz, a creation of Michael Sporn, that is a co-star of the production itself.
Roderick Cook is impeccable as Miss Bacall's English secretary - a man who in the earlier days of screwball comedy would have been the English butler - Eivind Harum makes an amusingly ardent Soviet ballet defector (a heterosexual ballet dancer, no less, surely a first for a Broadway musical!) Grace Keagy excels as a Teutonic maid, and in one of the hit songs, Marilyn Cooper, with a bone-dry expression, matches Miss Bacall point for point.
All in all a super show, with Miss Bacall truly proving to be Broadway's Woman of the Year.
''I wrote the book on class,'' sings Lauren Bacall in her new musical, ''Woman of the Year,'' and you had better believe it. This star's elegance is no charade, no mere matter of beautiful looks and gorgeous gowns. Her class begins where real class must - in her spirit - and only then makes its way to her angular physique, her big, sensuous eyes and that snapdragon of a voice. Even when her leading man, Harry Guardino, dumps a pot of water over her head, she remains not only mesmerizing, but also completely fresh. As hard and well as Miss Bacall works in ''Woman of the Year,'' she never lets us see any sweat.
That's why this actress is a natural musical-comedy star. By making life and art look as easy and elegant as a perfect song, Miss Bacall embodies the very spirit of the carefree American musical. She also, as a result, makes extraordinary demands on her theatrical collaborators. When we see Miss Bacall on stage, we want the entertainment that contains her to come together as simply and delightfully as her performance. If it doesn't, we're going to notice the esthetic gap between the star and her vehicle very fast.
''Woman of the Year,'' which opened at the Palace last night, is an amiable show that suffers from such a gap. It boasts other assets besides Miss Bacall - most crucially a tuneful score by John Kander - but it often huffs and puffs to achieve effects that its leading lady can pull off with a flick of her regal head. And, even then, it doesn't always deliver. While this show never drops below a certain, hard-nosed level of Broadway professionalism, neither does it rise to a steadily exciting pitch. Its creators are most fortunate to have a star who crackles whether they light a fire under her or not.
The musical has been adapted by Peter Stone from the tender and funny Ring Lardner Jr.-Michael Kanin screenplay that first brought Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy together in 1942. Mr. Stone's book isn't up to his source material, but it doesn't disfigure it. This ''Woman of the Year'' is still a modern battle between the sexes: the story of how a man's man, Sam Craig (Mr. Guardino), and a fabulously successful career woman, Tess Harding (Miss Bacall), try to build a marriage around their powerful egos.
Mr. Stone has, by necessity, made his heroine and hero older than the originals. He has changed their professions as well. Tess, formerly a newspaper columnist, has been smartly reinvented as a superstar broadcast journalist modeled on Barbara Walters. Sam has been transformed from a sports writer into a cartoonist - an alteration that proves a mixed blessing. Though Sam's new career allows the musical to mix screen animation with live action for amusing results, it backs the book into some unfortunate corners early on. In order to bring about a first meeting for his leads, Mr. Stone must have Tess recite a television editorial against comic strips - a phony bit that introduces the heroine on an obnoxious note. When Sam reacts with outrage - he objects to cartoons being called ''funnies'' - we wonder how a cartoonist can be so humorless.
This jerry-built conflict is eventually and mercifully shoved aside, at which point the book's other problems present themselves. Though there are a few funny jokes scattered about - especially one that details the one sure-fire way to get a table at Pearl's restaurant - the batting average is not high. Mr. Stone seems to believe that the dropping of fading famous names - from G. Gordon Liddy to Marie Osmond - automatically provokes laughs. He's also insisted on recounting so much of the movie's plot that he bloats the show into overlength in Act I.
The book's top-heaviness is compounded by its inefficient, old-fashioned structure. Mr. Stone's song cues announce themselves like sirens - and then give way to numbers that tend to illustrate the action rather than advance it. Nor is there a first-rate choreographer present to take up the slackened forward drive. Tony Charmoli, who staged the dances, all too clearly hails from television. While his numbers have energy, they're simplified, variety-special versions of dances that have been done better by Bob Fosse (in his slouch-hat vein) and Michael Bennett (in ''Company''). There's even a gratuitous Russian kickline that recalls the Jerome Robbins of ''Fiddler on the Roof.''
Yet Mr. Kander's accompanying music is sprightly indeed. From the moment we hear the cheering overture (superbly orchestrated by Michael Gibson), it's clear that the score is flush with melodic ballads and show-biz brio. Miss Bacall gets to whoop it up with some male barflies in a trademark Kander rouser in Act I and then returns to the same bar to harmonize sweetly (in her fashion) with a pair of cleaning women in Act II. For Mr. Guardino and his animated alter-ego (a cat named Katz), there's a charming, sardonic duet that, if anything, seems too brief. While Fred Ebb's lyrics are sometimes routine (especially in the inadequate title song), they ascend to witty heights in the prolific comedy turns. Miss Bacall and Marilyn Cooper, as a hilariously frumpy housewife, bring down the house when they try to decide whose ''grass is greener'' late in Act II.
Robert Moore, a good comedy director, has cast able clowns (Roderick Cook, Grace Keagy) in the minor roles and punched up every joke he can. He hasn't quite succeeded in providing Miss Bacall with an evenly matched leading man. Though Mr. Guardino is skillful, his blandness recalls the salad days of Sydney Chaplin. Until Sam arrives at a touching Act II ballad, we're unclear about why Tess finds him so fascinating. Even then, we don't believe that she would consider, however briefly, abandoning her career for him.
The production's design could also use some spiffing up. Tony Walton's elaborate sets are clever yet colorless, and Marilyn Rennagel's lighting is gloomy. The usually inspired costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge has done well by her star, only to dress the rest of the cast in varying shades of drab. But that may be the point. The people who concocted this musical know what their show is really about. Miss Bacall is on hand virtually the whole time, and she's vibrant whether no-nonsense or tipsy, domineering or moony, dry or wet. If ''Woman of the Year'' is tired around the edges, it is always smart enough to keep its live wire center stage.