The New Amsterdam Theater, opened 94 years ago with a Shakespearean play about a fairy king, mixed-up lovers and a man who acquires the head of an ass, reopened Sunday night with a musical about a biblical king the authors portray as a man who misplaces love and pretty much acts like an ass. The theater itself is magnificent. The Disney Corp., using $8 million of its own money and $28 million of ours (us being the taxpayers of New York City and state), has renovated the theater in an extraordinary manner. In 1903, the design was noteworthy because it avoided the conventional red and gold for a much subtler palette of greens, violets and greys colors that might remind you of those in Disney’s 1937 masterpiece “Snow White.”
Both reflect the sensibility of European fairy tale illustration. Overall, the opulent decor makes a statement that is much more dramatic in 1997 than it was in 1903 that this is a place where magic happens. Let us hope something worthy of this wondrously refurbished showplace is eventually found. For now, Disney is offering “King David,” a cantata by Alan Menken and Tim Rice. Tony Walton has designed a grand piece of scaffolding that demonstrates the size and potential of the huge stage. It handily holds a 54-piece orchestra, a large chorus and a dozen principals. Wearing smart biblical outfits designed by William Ivey Long, they enact familiar stories; the slaying of Goliath, the affair with Bathsheba, the revolt and death of Absalom in simple, telling movements directed by Mike Ockrent. Rice starts with Saul, a truly tragic figure, whom he depicts as a mere political pawn, which diminishes both him and David. For the most part, Rice’s David is an agonized womanizer. The lyrics are clever but seldom deepen the narrative. Probably because of them, much of Menken’s music sounds unaccountably less like his own style than that of Rice's former partner, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, not to mention “Les Miserables’” Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg. Some of the music has the grandiosity of Elmer Bernstein writing for Cecil B. DeMille. The best of it, like a choral treatment of “Saul has slain his thousands,” sounds like the liturgy of Reform synagogues. It is lushly orchestrated, heavily amplified and grandly sung. Marcus Lovett makes a passionate David. Martin Vidnovic has his characteristic power as Saul one wishes the role were deeper. Judy Kuhn sings eloquently as David’s first wife, and Alice Ripley is a tempting Bathsheba. Stephen Bogardus handles a narrative role skillfully. Daniel James Hodd sings beautifully as Solomon. There may be a musical in the story of David, but it will have to be leaner and sharper than this one. “King David” is earnest and ambitious but unexciting. It weighs down a story that has fascinated people for 3,000 years with contemporary pretension and cynicism.
The catchiest song in ”King David,” the Alan Menken and Tim Rice musical that officially opened the splendidly restored New Amsterdam Theater on Sunday night, consists of the following lyrics, repeated and repeated and repeated: ”Saul has slain his thousands, and David his 10 thousands!”
Before you dare to observe that this isn’t exactly Cole Porter, please remember that the words come directly from the Bible, from the first book of Samuel, to be exact.
And Mr. Menken, the composer for such beloved Disney cartoon musicals as “The Little Mermaid” and “Pocahontas,” has set these exultant exclamations, sung by a horde of victory-drunk ancient Israelites, to a rousing, peppy melody that bizarrely evokes the fare that clean-cut choral groups like the New Christy Minstrels used to perform to work their audiences into a wholesome lather.
Here, the number has the distinction of sticking to the memory so adhesively that you may require brainwashing to forget it. For better or worse, the same cannot be said of the rest of this aural equivalent of a historical diorama.
The folks at Disney, producers (with Andre Djaoui) of this concert version of “King David” and the force behind the stunning restoration of a 42d Street show palace that once housed the Ziegfeld Follies, are a famously canny lot. So perhaps their strategy in selecting this self-described oratorio to inaugurate their tenancy at the New Amsterdam had something to do with not wanting to steal the attention from the charms of the theater itself. If so, they have definitely succeeded.
In his comic novel “God Knows,” Joseph Heller has King David, the shepherd poet who grew up to unite Israel, note, “Moses has the Ten Commandments, it’s true, but I’ve got much better lines.” No argument there. Just think of the immmortal phrases associated with David’s story: “How the mighty are fallen” and “Absalom, my son,” not to mention all those beautiful psalms he is credited with writing.
Yet for whatever reasons, attempts to dramatize David’s life have erred on the side of cheesiness or tedium, often both at the same time. (Remember the movie called “David and Bathsheba,” with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward?) For entertainment value, “King David” could actually do with a little more cheese, although it does feature a lot of mystical choral “ahs” that evoke what is heard in the background when miracles occur in movies like Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments.”
Mostly, though, the show is sober, respectful, packed with enough information for a month of Bible-study classes and, on its own terms, most carefully thought out, with pop equivalents of operatic motifs and exotic folkloric touches a la Borodin. Yet while the well-sung cast, under Mike Ockrent’s direction, and the orchestra (Michael Kosarin is the music director and Douglas Besterman the orchestrator) have been painstakingly polished, the show, at two hours and 45 minutes, just can’t help being a Goliath of a yawn.
It didn’t have to be, given its genuinely sensational source material and the resumes of its chief creators. But here Mr. Rice shows little of the impudent wit he brought to the lyrics of another biblical pop opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar” (with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber), and the playful, lilting tunefulness Mr. Menken brought to “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” surfaces only rarely.
The problem may in part be that “King David” was initially commissioned (by Mr. Djaoui, a European film producer) as a commemorative spectacle to be held outside the walled city for last year’s Jerusalem 3000. And the show is fat with the celebratory solemnity common to such events.
Mr. Rice introduces some intriguing ideas, appropriate to the lyricist of “Superstar” and “Evita,” about the intersection of personal ambition and religion and nationalism, and, in his desire to be historically informative, manages to rhyme words like Ammonites and Amalekites. (The show sidesteps the much-debated homoerotic possibilities between Jonathan and David and any mention of those Philistine foreskins David had to collect as trophies.)
But mostly the production walks woodenly from one epochal event to another, with ponderous interior monologues for its conflicted characters (Saul sings about “the enemy within”) and flashes of strobe and blood-red lighting to wake up the audience. (The tiered set, with a backdrop of illuminated Hebrew script, is by Tony Walton.)
The hard-working (and, to their credit, crisply enunciating) cast includes Martin Vidnovic, fulminating mightily as the paranoid King Saul; Peter Samuel, in fine oracular voice as the prophet Samuel; a starlet-like Alice Ripley, in an oddly unflattering Rita Hayworth dress, as Bathsheba; and Roger Bart and Anthony Galde, suggesting different styles of teen-age idols as Jonathan and Absalom.
In the taxing title role, Marcus Lovett, despite evident problems with his head mike (something that brings new complications to the act of kissing), is in solid and flexible voice. But he is also somehow too passive a presence to be a magnetic center. Stephen Bogardus, as David’s counselor and the show’s narrator, is excellent, however, bringing a surprising quality of engagement to long expository passages.
And Judy Kuhn, a Broadway star before she was the voice of Pocahontas for Disney, is terrific as the proud Michal, a character described by Mr. Heller as the very first Jewish-American princess. With a penetrating voice and a slyly commanding carriage, Ms. Kuhn gives the evening its strongest psychological edge. And she dazzlingly turns an unremarkable song, “Never Again,” into an incisive emotional portrait that stops the show.
“King David” has been described by Mr. Rice as “a work in progress.” So it’s possible there are more elaborate versions to come. But even if it is reincarnated as a singing cartoon movie, it will need more than the multicolor magic of Disney’s technicians and artists to make it seem truly animated.
Perhaps reverence is best left at the altar. Composer Alan Menken, whose sweet pop ballads and sprightly upbeat tunes virtually resurrected the Disney animated film in the late 1980s, takes on God as a collaborator in “King David,” and the intimidation factor shows. Performed in a limited-run concert version to inaugurate the Walt Disney Co.’s New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway, “King David” showcases Menken’s first-rate abilities as a pop craftsman, featuring any number of songs that could stand on their own. Indeed, they’d be better off: Unrelentingly serious-minded and devoid of the wit and cheekiness that Menken (who, after all, had his breakthrough with “Little Shop of Horrors”) brought to previous projects, “King David,” though certainly not without its pleasures, eventually grows as wearying as a Biblical list of “begats.”
With The Word interpreted yet again by lyricist Tim Rice (“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”), “King David” tells the story of Israel’s shepherd king with an epic, and episodic, sweep that, at 2 hours and 45 minutes, is more than a little too epic. Short on dramatic thrust or a compelling central storyline, “King David” will need streamlining and plot enhancement if its creators take it to the next step of a full-scale musical production.
But if viewed as a workshop, the nine-performance “oratorio” is as elaborate and loving a production as Disney’s estimable forces can muster. So nicely sung that one is almost willing to forgive the score's repetitiousness, this concert staging, despite considerable problems with pace, includes enough musical highlights to warrant further development. If Menken and Rice can resist the impulse to treat the work as sacred, “King David” could have a future.
Staged by Mike Ockrent in the hybrid concert-theatrical style of the Encore! series that produced the current Broadway revival of “Chicago,” “King David” has its actors (in William Ivey Long’s modified period costumes --- tunics, linen pants, sandals) interact with one another, making full use of the stage and a stepped platform. Mostly sung-through, the story, as narrated by David’s general, Joab (Stephen Bogardus), recounts the life of the shepherd-poet who would become the great king of Israel. Joab actually begins before the beginning --- trimming opportunity --- with the tale of the prophet Samuel (Peter Samuel) and Israel’s first king, Saul (Martin Vidnovic), who initially disagree over the choice of David (Marcus Lovett) as successor.
Saul comes around, virtually adopting David as his own son when the young shepherd fells the giant Philistine warrior Goliath with a sling. With Goliath played by very large actor Bill Nolte, with wild hair and half-wit expression, the production veers a bit too close to Biblical kitsch here, not least due to the lumbering, chant-heavy number “Goliath of Gath,” which could easily come from an old “Hercules” movie.
From there, the score charts David’s ascendancy, his marriage to Michal (Judy Kuhn), his rivalry with Saul, friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan (Roger Bart), his affair with Bathsheba (Alice Ripley), and the rebellion and death of his beloved son Absalom (Anthony Galde). The story ends as the dying, aged David anoints Solomon (Daniel James Hodd), son of Bathsheba, his successor.
That’s a lot of story to pack into a musical, even one running nearly three hours. Few of the characters or episodes are given much development, with the tale of Bathsheba, among the better-known of the episodes, given especially short shrift.
The much-needed paring down would also put the score’s best songs in a better light. Menken’s range here is not exactly vast --- his ballads, though pleasant, are in the mold of his Disney tunes --- and the score too soon settles into sameness. Some highlights break through: the pop gospel of “Saul Has Slain His Thousands,” the love ballad “Sheer Perfection,” the anthemic “This New Jerusalem,” even the cool jazz sounds (however incongruous) of “Warm Spring Night.” Those songs are the wheat among too much chaff.
Rice’s lyrics have their share of detritus as well, but they generally take a more straightforward approach than is associated with the lyricist. The awkward flourishes of Rice’s earlier work are kept to a minimum, although he’s still capable of the odd anachronistic groaner --- in a song describing the young David, Rice rhymes “devout” with “well worth checking out.” While few will miss the lyricist’s over-ripe excesses, the irreverence that he brought to “Dreamcoat,” “Superstar” and even “Evita” would do much to lighten the ponderousness of “King David.”
Despite Douglas Besterman’s overpowering orchestrations, the cast sings beautifully and acts (to the extent the production is acted) well enough. Lovett is strong-voiced and sympathetic in the taxing title role, and Bogardus adds personality to the underwritten character of the cynical narrator. Vidnovic and Samuel are fine as the first king and prophet, respectively, and Bart adds poignancy as David’s doomed, loyal friend. Only Galde, as Absalom, overdoes, giving the rebellious son a few too many angry rock star poses.
As for the women, both Kuhn (the standout with ballads “Sheer Perfection” and “Never Again”) and Ripley have terrific voices, though their characterizations seem a bit modern for the story. Ripley (as Bathsheba) especially comes off more like a modern-day beauty queen than the Bible’s famously tainted woman.
Tech credits were virtually flawless, from David Agress’ tasteful lighting to Jonathan Deans’ sound design (even amplified, the voices sound wonderfully natural). Disney’s $34 million renovation of the New Amsterdam Theater is an unqualified success. “King David” has some catching up to do.