How do you write a story that will tie together 34 pop and soul songs from the 1960s and '70s? How do you take numbers as wildly diverse as Neil Young's cry of protest "Ohio" and Gamble and Huff's smoochy ballad "Me and Mrs. Jones" and meld them into a coherent show? Marion J. Caffey, who conceived and staged "Street Corner Symphony," supplies a bold answer -- don't bother.
Or rather, he does something worse. He tries out an idea, watches it die of embarrassment and then simply abandons it.
The idea is young people in Gainesville, Fla., gathering under a street light to rehearse songs they might some day get to perform at the local Mercury Theater.
It's not exactly Shakespeare, but a competent book writer might have made it into a passable excuse for what is really no more than a string of old hits. There is, however, no book writer. If there were, he or she would probably insist on anonymity. We have, for instance, the makings of some kind of dramatic situation in the announcement by C.E. Smith's CJ that he has been drafted for Vietnam. We get the tearful farewells. Later on, we get a bald announcement that the '60s are over and CJ is safely back from the war. And that's it.
As a concert, however, it's perfectly competent. Carol Dennis has a great soul voice, even if, for no apparent reason, she is forced to sing Don McLean's "American Pie" with a success that can be gauged by imagining Don McLean singing "Get on Down Like a Sex Machine." So long as you don't go to the theater expecting, well, theater, you may have some fun.
The downside of success is its sad habit of breeding mediocrity.
Shows such as "Smokey Joe's Cafe" or, for that matter, "Five Guys Named Mo," have prompted the idea that all one needs for a Broadway musical is a cast of singers, some costumes, fairly minimal sets, and a wedge and wodge of musical arrangements, and, whether you are diabolic producers or angelic backers, you can scarcely go wrong.
You can, you know. Last night a musical revue called "Street Corner Symphony" leapt energetically into the Brooks Atkinson Theater. Indeed, leaping and energy seemed the salient features of this baby-boomer nostalgia show.
I noticed a few of the fifty-somethings packing the audience, clapping along with the oldie music, moist-eyed with the joyful remembrance of things past. If you are younger or - as in my case - older, it will probably not be so much fun.
And even some baby-boomers may have their tastes challenged, if not their memories, by a show whose production values - not, note, the very worthy and hard-working cast - could be transplanted intact to a modest Las Vegas nightclub or an ambitious Caribbean cruise ship.
Now, you will recall that earlier shows - such as "Smokey Joe's" with the admirable Leiber and the equally admirable Stoller, concentrated on a single oeuvre, or, in the even earlier cases of the Fats Waller and Eubie Blake shows, a single personality.
"Street Corner Symphony," described as a "retro musical" set at "the intersection of pop and soul" has many heroes, from Stevie Wonder to Smokey Robinson to Marvin Gaye to Gladys Knight, but no commanding style.
The evening reveals a little pop, a little doo-wop, a little rock, a little soul, a little Motown. A little of anything vaguely reminiscent of a nearly distant past, of psychedelic, drug-culture discos, old TV, even the odd commercial.
The show in its decor (chiefly a lurid-colored porch contributed by Neil Peter Jampolis, who has known better nights and one would hope better porches) and costumes (by Jonathan Bixby) takes poverty-stricken modesty to the point of bashfulness, and the production - whatever it cost - manages to look cheap.
The band is notably fine, the orchestrations by Daryl Waters and the vocal arrangements by Michael McElroy are both handsomely more than adequate, and the performers prove talented and charming.
I was most impressed by Victor Trent Cook and Stacy Francis; the entire cast of eight consists of good, solid Broadway performers - but without perhaps the spark of musical individuality which could make a concert star. No one, I suspect, is ever going to be covering their songs.
"Street Corner Symphony" is really a kind of theater for people who don't really want to go to the theater. But it has a mood.
To give you some idea of that Vietnam Era ambience, early on one of the characters says, memorably: "See you later, alligator." In a long long, long while, crocodile!
A few years back, a show called ''Catskills on Broadway'' brought the sensibility of Grossinger's to midtown. Now, with ''Street Corner Symphony,'' we get Caesar's Palace on West 47th Street.
As a matter of fact, this 1960's pop and rhythm-and-blues revue is so much like a Vegas lounge act the only thing missing is the two-drink minimum. Yes, the 90 minutes pass fairly painlessly, and the renditions of indelible hits of the 60's and early 70's like ''It's in His Kiss,'' ''Respect'' and ''Midnight Train to Georgia'' will very likely trigger the desired Pavlovian reflex in some sentimental baby boomers.
But the songs of ''Street Corner Symphony,'' which opened Monday night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, are presented in such witless, roll-'em-out fashion, it's as if the entire production was synthesized in one of those mini-jukeboxes that hang over booths in all-night diners. Like a show on the Strip, it's loud and shiny, with the big-throated singers flashing their teeth and winking a lot. Not much is created onstage, though, that you can't experience by buying the soundtrack of a movie like ''The Commitments.''
Burdened with the unhippest title in a district not known for hipness, ''Street Corner Symphony'' wants to plop its caboose on the tracks laid painstakingly by ''Smokey Joe's Cafe,'' the long-running revue celebrating the work of the prolific pop team of Leiber and Stoller. (It has even recruited one of the ''Smokey Joe's'' performers, Victor Trent Cook.) If the slicker ''Smokey Joe's'' is a cafe, however, ''Street Corner'' is a mere takeout counter, offering only a few watered-down dishes from what should be a much richer feast.
The new show, conceived and staged by Marion J. Caffey, begins promisingly enough. The setting, for some reason, is Gainesville, Fla., but it really stands for Anytown, U.S.A., where the infectious melodies of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder catch the ears of kids who hang out under street lamps and harmonize. For the next 20 minutes, Mr. Caffey weaves the familiar songs with the ''shoop-shoop'' and ''Naa-na-na-na-na'' refrains into something like a pastiche of 60's rituals of high school and courtship.
The best numbers are the only two in which songs and movement are arranged with any originality. In one, a spooning couple (Eugene Fleming and Carol Dennis) flirtatiously croon ''Try a Little Tenderness'' and ''Respect'' to each other. In the other, the cast of eight moves joyously to all the loopy 60's dance crazes, like the Mashed Potato, the Frug, the Jerk, the Boogaloo and the Swim.
But after the hopeful setup, complete with a full-scale mock-up of a homey Cape Cod designed by Neil Peter Jampolis, Mr. Caffey simply abandons the narrative and suddenly we're in a psychedelic disco or something, because the cast members have changed into Nehru jackets and peace medallions. The era is always evoked in the most banal ways: in one number, a singer actually carries a protest placard that says ''Make Love Not War.'' This may put you in mind of those square television variety shows in which the director allowed the dancers to convert to groovy Beatles haircuts and bell bottoms three years after they ceased being fashionable.
The ensuing hour consists mainly of many of your favorite songs performed adequately and sometimes better than that, in front of microphones and twirling lights. The costumes by Jonathan Bixby are garish period parodies, and the choreography is mostly limited to the type of synchronized hand swaying popularized by the Temptations. Among the singers, Ms. Dennis, Mr. Fleming and Mr. Cook come closest to delivering star turns, but throughout 32 numbers and two reprises, very little atomic power is generated. Never is there that electric moment when the music so fills you that your hands are forced together in wild appreciation.
It's too bad, because if nothing else ''Street Corner Symphony'' is a reminder of how soulful and expressive were many of the melodies that monopolized the airwaves in the days of rage. They have been a force in the culture ever since, and they deserve a little more ingenuity and, well, R-E-S-P-E-C-T than they get in this underdeveloped showcase.
Broadway's gain is Six Flags' loss, or is it the other way around? "Street Corner Symphony" is a sloppily conceived oldies revue that doesn't even bother to play by its own lax rules. Note to director: Characters who mention "Superfly" won't be watching "Shindig." Different decades.
Performed with the faux soul of a Las Vegas casino act and only the barest hint of a superimposed book, "Symphony" runs through 90 minutes of overly familiar pop and R&B oldies of the 1960s and '70s, from "Dancing in the Street" to "Soul Man," digressing along the way for some real howlers. A highly emotional mod guy in a psychedelic Nehru jacket, surrounded by grim-faced protesters and backed by a large American flag, turns Neil Young's "Ohio" into a comic tour de force, though not intentionally.
Conceived and directed by Marion J. Caffrey, "Symphony" is loosely structured as the nostalgic reverie of a woman named Cynthia (Carol Dennis), who is remembering the Gainesville, Fla., neighborhood where she and her friends would sing on street corners and in the local juke joint. Between-song snippets of dialogue occasionally suggest some character differentiation and plot, but pre-opening cuts (from two acts to one) apparently turned what little book there was to little more than another memory.
As it stands, the corny patter merely sets up the songs. A go-go-booted white girl expresses her love for a black man, prompting her friends to break into "Your boyfriend's black and you're gonna be in trouble, hey la, hey la, your boyfriend's black." Later, when the boyfriend, C.J. (C.E. Smith), is drafted, he performs an "Unchained Melody" overwrought even by that song's considerable standard.
For the most part, though, the songs are performed without an attempt at plot, the book abandoned altogether in the show's second half when the cast re-creates amateur night at the old Gainesville nightclub. The songs themselves ("Oh Girl," "Betcha by Golly Wow," "Midnight Train to Georgia," etc.) benefit from recognition --- familiarity breeds applause --- and generally are performed with vocal competence. The mostly black cast is generally good, though the two non-black performers compensate by mugging and using excessive street affectations. (Jose Llana has the busiest eyebrows on Broadway.) The patent-leathered Catherine Morin, despite the worst costume in a badly dressed show, latches onto an infomercial smile and won't let go.
As the narrator, Dennis is saddled with the bad dialogue load ("Those were some of our memories --- maybe we stirred up some of yours. Can I get a witness?"), and even her powerful voice can't turn an over-serious (and blessedly abridged) "American Pie" into anything but a kitschy hoot. Best not to ponder how she works in a Boyz 2 Men hit.
Tech credits are as low in imagination as they are in budget, with Jonathan Bixby's mishmash of costumes paying no particular heed to history, and the Jules Fisher-Peggy Eisenhauer lighting design relying heavily on a bank of blinding yellow spots that are less roadhouse than road accident.
Lacking the spirit and polish of "Smokey Joe's Cafe," and even with heavy discounting (preview audiences have been paying an average $15 a ticket for this $70-top show), "Street Corner Symphony" is unlikely to cash in on Boomer nostalgia. No matter how hard or blatantly it tries.