My feeling is this: Everybody connected with "Oh, Brother!," last night scatterbrained new musical at the ANTA, was in such a hurry to get it over with that they whipped through it in 90 minutes or so. Tonight, if there is a tonight, they should be able to dust it off in 80. You see, all the whooping and hollering from that friendly audience I was part of (actually, a Monday night press preview) held things up after each musical number.
With considerable temerity, considering the beauties of the Rodgers and Hart classic "The Boys From Syracuse," the writers of "Oh, Brother!" have gone once again to Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" for their plot. But not only is the story of the twin brothers and their twin servants miserably out of joing in an OPEC country on the Persian Gulf, it is so silly in the presentation as to defy description.
Michael Valenti's score, while not strikingly original, is at least cheerful, pleasantly melodic and varied, but the lyrics by Donald Driver, who is also responsible for the dizzy book and even dizzier staging, are perfunctory at best and at worst come up with couplets on the order of "How can I fill my dest-iny/Till it's made manifest-to-me?"
Pity then the plight of Judy Kaye who, as the bride of the Arabian master twin, can belt out a song with the best of them, but has only a double-entendre ballad ("How Do You Want Me?") and a grinding outburst ("What Do I Tell People This Time?") to expend her talent on. Much the same goes for the engaging and fleet-footed Harry Groener as the visiting twin, brother of the married one, decently sung by David-James Carroll. In this resurfacing of the Bard's early comedy, the servants are black, and Alan Weeks and Joe Morton make what they can of the brothers, in both the literal and modern sense, whether skimming by on skateboards or diving into sand dunes.
Even Mary Mastrantonio, whose sweet soprano is heard to advantage once or twice in the role of the bride's sister, must suffer the burden of a number called "That's Him," a song title made memorable years ago by Ogden Nash. And in an evidently last-ditch attempt, Driver has clumsily dragged Shaw in by his beard to create the role of a belly dancer named Fatatatatatima, fetchingly but pointlessly turned loose now and again (sometimes with a bevy of sister twisters) in the lithe person of Alyson Reed. Finally, commiseration is due Richard B. Shull, shuffled about at the beginning and end as the father first in search of and then reunited with his long-lost sons and their mother.
So be it. The lumpy, sandy, multi-purpose set backed by sea and sky and skittering suns and moons serves the mad scampering of the aimlessly employed cast, eventually confronted, in an unfunny sight gag, by a teeter-totter image of the graybeard ayatollah himself. Costumes and lighting are serviceable. The evening, to its credit, is quick, as I have said; quick as death.
Opportunism rarely works in the theater. It certainly didn't work last night at the ANTA Theater where a bunch of producers - some shows nowadays have more producers than cast members - staged a limply unmusical musical called Oh, Brother! Oh, God!
The story is based on Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors. Some time later this was adapted as a musical by Rodgers and Hart, and included such wonderful songs as This Can't Be Love and Falling in Love With Love. The current retread does not boast this kind of music - in fact it has no music actually to boast of at all. But it does have a gimmick.
This is going to kill you. Given half a chance. The diabolical idea is to place the action in the Persian Gulf (you know, Iran, where the oil, terrorists, and Ayatollahs come from.) Smart, huh. Lots of contemporary gags, a comic camel played by two men and a hump, and a little good old-fashioned belly dancing.
(Just to lighten the mood - it needs it - many years ago when I was visiting New York, at a time when English accents were comparitively rare, a cabdriver asked me what brought me to town. I said to see theater and ballet dancing. He gasped: "You mean you're sent all this way to see those broads doing belly dancing on Second Avenue." But, on with this notice.)
The book and lyrics have been written by Donald Driver - and the book in particular is coarse. I don't mean bawdy, indeed I don't at all mind bawdy, in fact I like bawdy, but coarseness is something different.
The tone is very sexist, almost waspishly anti-feminist, atrocious puns are used as if their very atrociousness makes them clever, continuing gags continue far too long, and the whole thing is topped off, as it were with a whirl of curdled cream, by the longest, silliest and most tedious chase in the history of the modern theater. (Did no one see Robbins's work in High Button Shoes?)
Michael Valenti's score is slimly competent and dimly unmemorable. It does have one rousing number, We Love an Old Story, which is played almost ad infinitum and recalls Comedy Tonight from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Ann Emonts's costumes are conventional almost to the point of despair, while permanent setting by Michael J. Hotopp and Paul Pass is two evenly balanced for anything less than ultimate monotony. The setting does provide the answer to one prevalent designing problem. How do you convey sand on stage? Answer: use heavy shag carpet in a sand tone.
The principal cast is almost painfully talented - 10 lovely people faced with a desert and not even an oasis let alone an oil well in sight. They all pushed and battered along their material like Sysyphus pushing his rock uphill. But there must have been times when it crossed the minds of some of them that there must be some other business than show business, because Driver's own direction was unfortunately worthy of his script.
I did particularly like, however, Judy Kaye as a sexy but neglected wife. She has the makings of a star.
Two pluses. There is no intermission, which gets the evening over at a brisk snail's pace, and one good joke. This happens before the curtain rises. The American eagles that flank in golden glory the proscenium arch of the ANTA theater, have been decorated with Arab headdresses and sunglasses. That's Oil, Brother!
''Oh, Brother!,'' the new musical at the ANTA, desperately wants to be ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.'' It also wouldn't mind being ''The Boys From Syracuse,'' the musical version of ''Two Gentlemen of Verona'' or maybe even ''Milk and Honey.'' In the end - or, for that matter, in the beginning - it has to settle for being a spectacularly silly Las Vegas floor show. But ''Oh, Brother!'' tries. Oh, brother, does it try.
This musical is not without its resources. The cast, though often wasted, is an able one, full of talented, appealing young performers. ''Oh, Brother!'' also introduces to Broadway a composer, Michael Valenti, from whom we'll want to hear again. Though there's nothing startling about Mr. Valenti's music, he writes solid, at times pretty, show tunes. His score is in good hands, too. The voices are sprightly, as are Jim Tyler's orchestrations and Marvin Laird's conducting and vocal arrangements. What's more, ''Oh, Brother!'' may be the only current Broadway musical that is discreetly amplified: we hear music instead of an electronic buzz. Let other producers note that this show's sound system was designed by Richard Fitzgerald.
The rest of ''Oh, Brother!'' - its book, lyrics, direction and ''staging'' - is the work of Donald Driver. With the exception of the lyrics, which are adequate, Mr. Driver's contributions encase the show in cement. It is his idea to reset a Plautus-Shakespeare long-lost brothers farce in the contemporary Middle East, and a most misguided idea it is.
What's funny about the Middle East today? Not much - unless you want to be completely tasteless. Mr. Driver allows himself to be tasteless once -when he drags on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for burlesque gags - but otherwise he avoids pointed allusions to present-day Middle East headlines like the plague. It's hard to blame him, but why bother to set a show in a region where there's no room, right now, for humor? Thanks to its concept, ''Oh, Brother!'' is crippled before it even begins.
Because he can't bite any satirical teeth into his topical setting, Mr. Driver loads the show instead with hoary double-entendre gags and stale parodies of Hollywood's old Arabian Nights movies. These mirthless jokes wouldn't make it into the worst sketches of a Mel Brooks film or ''Sugar Babies''; some of them look and sound as though they were culled from 15-year-old back issues of Mad magazine. Nor does the farcical plot bail the book out. Unlike Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, who wrote the superlative libretto for ''Forum,'' Mr. Driver doesn't know how to pace or build his convoluted story of mistaken identities - it's all conveyed frenetically in the same numbing shriek.
The direction is of the same style. Mr. Driver has staged this show at a speed that kills. ''Oh, Brother!'' runs one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, and the actors are running the whole time. Energy is one thing -a relay race is another. Whiplash direction, much of it modeled on ''Three Stooges'' comedies, is not a substitute for well-written fun. After a while, we look forward to the musical numbers not only because we want to hear Mr. Valenti's score, but also so those poor schnooks on stage will have a chance to catch their breath.
The choreography, which puts great store in the humorous possibilities of belly dancing, is at a college revue level. There isn't much room for it, in any case, because the routine unit set, by Michael J. Hotopp and Paul De Pass, limits flat stage space to a downstage strip slightly larger than a beach towel. That's unfortunate, because there are some very nimble dancers on hand. Given a few small opportunities, Harry Groener reminds us of the charming, lighter-than-air Will Parker he contributed to the last Broadway revival of ''Oklahoma!'' Alan Weeks, short and compact, could have been Gene Kelly to his Ray Bolger.
Among the other likable cast members are Joe Morton, Mary Mastrantonio, Larry Marshall and David-James Carroll. Richard B. Shull, that amusing character actor who looks like a bloated fish, gets to contribute a few skillful slow burns in the role of a middle-aged tourist. Judy Kaye, while getting campier each time out, remains a big belter with a sure comic sense. Though she can't quite stop this relentlessly frantic show, perhaps nothing short of a Camp David pact could.