It's hard to resist a show with a tender love song stating "You hum and you snore in the same key, baby," and Melvin Van Peebles is certainly an engaging fellow. But he has spread himself so thin in his "Waltz of the Stork," an essentially one-man show that he has written, staged and produced, and that came to the Century last evening that you feel sated even before intermission.
Discovered along a particularly grubby stretch of midtown Manhattan - it's so grubby, in fact, that the street musician (Bob Carten) who stands tootling away on his sax in a doorway, his upturned cap by his feet, doesn't collect a dime for almost two hours - Van Peebles takes us on an imaginary journey, supposedly a recounting of his adventures, around a good part of the world.
He plays Edward, a wide-eyed, good-natured drifter and womanizer who gets in and out of scrapes about the globe, including one in a combat area, until he finds peace and contentment back in New York with his first love, now a widow with two children. (The title, by the way, refers to what his mama told him about his birth and his worldwide search for angel or stork wings.)
All this is related and acted out, of course, by the star, sometimes assisted by two miming actors, a young woman and a young man (C.J. Critt and Mario Van Peebles) who impersonate everything from passersby to what appeared to be a couple of Indonesian dancers, and in a variety of costumes.
Van Peebles, whose handiwork has been missing for the last 10 years ("Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death" and "Don't Play Us Cheap"), sings, if you can call it that, in a hoarse, scratchy voice, and his composing talents are negligible (the evening's best number, in fact, is Mark Barkan's jaunty "We Only Meet at Weddings and Funerals"). And his narrative is a sketchy, ill-composed piece of work, brightened at all-too-rare moments by amusing observations and by a skillful delivery.
Kurt Lundell's gray, grimy-looking set features bold and familiar street ads for such things as fried chicken, a local radio station and, on a dilapidated newsstand wall, various magazines. It occurred to me that other producers might take a tip and cut ever-mounting production costs by plastering not just their sets but the very theater walls themselves.
Melvin Van Peebles has come back to Broadway after being away for 10 years. I can't think how much Broadway has changed, but it seems as though Van Peebles has certainly mellowed. He apparently calls his show Waltz of the Stork, which officially wandered into the Century Theater last night, "a poetic valentine to New York City." Oh, dear!
And this from a man who a decade ago, with his blistering black musicals, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death and Don't Play Us Cheap, seemed in no mood for valentines. Then his black humor and ghetto bile erupted with a fierce, ironic bitterness. Yeah, the guy's mellowed.
Waltz of the Stork is virtually a monologue about how it took a man 48 years to become 21. The title is seemingly literally intended on one of his many bouts of fantasy. Peebles, as his own leading character, Edward Aloysius Younger, tells us of the waltz the stork performs when he collects the babies from the angels. You suspect that this is more intended as a symbol of human felicity, and with its sexual overtones you might imagine that the waltz of the stork was performed to the sound of the voice of the turtle.
Van Peebles is what the Elizabethans would have called the "onlie begetter" of this strange entertainment. He wrote it, including, apart from two numbers, the lyrics and music, he is overwhelmingly the chief performer, and underwhelmingly his own director. He also produced it. The result is rather like being buttonholed by the Ancient Mariner at a boring party - from almost the first moment you feel you are in for something that is neither of your choice or making.
Van Peebles' protagonist Younger, keeps up a garrulous cross fire of badinage while an itinerant street musician, a saxophonist, Bob Carten, provides the somewhat monotonous music and the occasional obligato of background noise.
Van Peebles' concepts and conceits seem like a long road that have no ending. Most are fantasy - such as one in Africa where the hero caught in a compromising situation with an Army commandant's wife is sentenced to the firing squad. There is another story about a ritual party, serving goat's blood, for example, but often Van Peebles' monologue seem not to need the justification of a coherent theme but meanders scattily toward the far horizon.
Let it be stressed that Van Peebles is a performer of considerable personal appeal. His voice is crinkled and crackled, his lean body seems transiently caught between a determination for instant flight and a Sammy Davis Jr. imitation, his manner proves insidiously jaunty, and he has a reckless moustache sliding down his face down the corners of his mouth. In short he looks dangerous, yet attractively so.
Also he still has the old fierceness and passion. When he sings of a ghetto basketball player who might had been another Dr. J had it not been for his heroin habit you glimpse the real Van Peebles, as tough and rough and cheated, as ever.
The supporting cast, including the impassive saxophonist, Van Peebles' son Mario, and a woman called C.J. Critt do what supporting they have to do adequately. Kert Lundell has provided the agreeable urban-blight setting. But not even a setting in diamonds and pearls could save this wordy rigamarole, this much ado about nothing.
When a performer takes the stage to bare his soul in two solid hours of song and monologue, the result can be theater at its most personal and ecstatic. That's one (and only one) of the lessons that Lena Horne has taught us this year. But such evenings are not so easy to bring off as Miss Horne makes it seem. What if the monologues are opaque and at times nonsensical? What if the songs are poorly written and sung? What if the bared soul often seems petty and selfish?
The sad answers to these what-ifs can be found at the Century, where Melvin Van Peebles's new show, ''Waltz of the Stork,'' flew in last night. And the result quickly proves to be a bewildering, almost unwatchable exercise in self-indulgence. As has been his wont in such previous projects as the film ''Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song'' and the Broadway musical ''Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death,'' Mr. Van Peebles has done virtually all the work here: he's the composer, librettist, producer, director and star. It may be time for him to take on a trustworthy collaborator - someone with the guts to say a firm no. This show is so confused and impenetrably private that it isn't ready to play a living room, let alone a Broadway theater.
Mr. Van Peebles adopts the role of a seemingly autobiographical persona called Edward Aloysius Younger. He wanders around a grim, apocalyptic collage of Manhattan, usually trailed by the evening's sole musician, a sullen-faced saxophonist named Bob Carten. Occasionally Edward's spiel is augmented by recorded music and sound effects or by the prancings of two backup performers, Mario Van Peebles and C.J. Critt, who play the hero's ''phantoms and memories.'' But the elder Mr. Van Peebles has all the lines. His son Mario, who often appears in drag, and Miss Critt, who bares her breasts in Act II, merely smile gamely, wiggle their backsides and undergo costume changes that often have no apparent basis in the text.
As best as I could figure out, Edward's stories deal with his Chicago childhood, his travails in the Merchant Marines, his expatriate adventures in France, his arrival in the promised land of New York, his entry into showbiz. Sometimes it's hard to know, for the anecdotes often wander disorientingly into blind alleys and rarely come to a conclusion. Even the one story with real feeling - about a promising young basketball player who succumbs to heroin - is dribbled away in a fog of missing narrative synapses and jumbled chronology.
While one might expect Mr. Van Peebles to enlighten us about his far-ranging career as a maverick black playwright, film maker and novelist in white America, he never does. His real subject, it turns out, is his profligate sex life. The show ends when he returns, sadder but wiser, to the first woman he ever loved, ''who is as beautiful inside as she was lovely outside.'' By age 48, Edward has finally concluded that ''women seem to know more about the essence of things'' and that ''without love, this world is so mean, so rough.''
The songs, if that's what they can be called, consist of endlessly repeated jazz figures, accompanied by sentimental lyrics that often celebrate the joys of the flesh and the Big Apple. Mr. Van Peebles delivers them in a raw growl that sometimes builds into an insistent shout. ''You hum and you snore in the same key,'' sings Edward about his lady love - and the same might be said of Mr. Van Peebles. The audience is left with little choice but to snore back.