On Broadway, it's a fad to remake successful movies into earnest musicals. In Portland, it's a fad to remake corny movies into tongue-in-cheek musicals performed in untraditional settings. Somewhere in Time is ostensibly aimed for earnest Broadway, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it would've functioned better as a satirical romp in a bar.
The successful Broadway producer, Ken Davenport, who’s the guiding force behind the adaptation and wrote its book, told Culturephile before it opened that he immediately fell for the love story (or at least the video cassette cover) of the 1980 film starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, which is itself an adaptation of a book by Richard Matheson. It tells the tale of a promising young playwright, Richard Collier (Andrew Samonsky), who is visited by a mysterious old woman who says only, “Come back to me,” gives him a watch, and leaves. Years later, after his career has failed to amount to much, he holes up in a grand old hotel (literally the Grand Hotel) to make one last attempt at writing, only to fall in love with the portrait of a successful turn-of-the-century actress, Elise McKenna (Hannah Elless), who, he discovers, is the woman who visited him. Using self-hypnosis, he travels back in time to 1912 to spend one glorious night with her, while fighting off her overbearing and sinister manager (Marc Kudisch).
I tried to enter with an open mind, despite struggling to understand why this of all love stories needs to be revisited as a musical. Yes, the original movie grew into a cult classic of sorts despite reviews calling it horribly cheesy. And yes, theater often requires suspension of disbelief. But this plot is so utterly ridiculous that it requires an incredibly compelling romance to overcome the disbelief set up by its preposterous time travel paradox—why would Elise visit the young Richard if Richard had not time traveled back to her first, but why would he have been compelled to time travel back if she had not approached him first—to say nothing of several other leaps of faith (self-hypnotic time travelling only being the start). And sadly, this ambitious production falls far short of that romance.
It kicks off with a series of cacophonous ensemble songs that tries to cover years of Richard’s life, including a plotline from the book not included in the movie: that he has one year to live due to a mysterious disease that might cause hallucinations (reviewer Bob Hicks, in a thorough review, says it’s a brain tumor in the book, but I don’t remember that actually being said on stage—maybe it was lost in the cacophony—leaving me to think of Tom Hanks’s “brain cloud” in Joe Versus the Volcano).
The ensemble cast is made up mostly of New Yorkers, many of whom are Broadway veterans, and it certainly shows in the quality of their voices. And a couple give standout individual performances, particularly Portland vet Sharonlee McLean as the batty aged former assistant of Elise and Broadway vet David Cryer as the elderly bellhop. Yet, while it has craft, the ensemble shows little heart. Not that they have a lot to work with. The first act’s script is overstuffed yet unfulfilling, and its songs (music by the decorated Doug Katsaros) mostly lack catchy melodies and much diversity, which is not helped by the fact that, despite having a live orchestra, the sound production results in the instruments feeling canned.
The story and music pick up some steam in the second act with the appearance of multi-Tony-nominee Kudisch (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 9 to 5), whose golden voice and regal oppressiveness brings ominous life to the character of William Robinson, Elise’s manager, who seeks to manage all things, to the point of announcing they are to be wed without first informing her. His song “Long, Long Way to Indiana” and Elise’s song of emotional revelation, “Something My Heart Never Felt Before” (Elless, too, has a lovely voice), finally attain a melody to be remembered.
Yet it is also in the second act when the story falls apart. At heart, this is supposed to be a story about a love so strong that it transcends time. Yet Richard and Elise spend so little time together—most of which Richard, as performed by Samonsky, comes across as an uncharmingly goofy stalker, telling Elise all the things he knows about her life while suffering from twittering headaches—that there is no reason given to the audience for why they fall in love. The actors have little spark, and their love is so unmotivated that it’s mind boggling to think they needed to twist the laws of physics to achieve it. Basically, we're told its meant to be, but never shown why.
This is compounded by the lurking realization that Richard, coming from the future, knows full well that he’ll only be with Elise for a night before leaving her to spend the rest of her life pining for his return, which qualifies more as megalomania than love in my book. Or—since the plotline about his disease is included, regretfully flattening the ambiguity of the movie that left its audiences to wonder whether the story was true or a hallucination—the last elaborate fantasy of sick and depressed man.
Halfway through the second act, a couple of dancing girls sing something along the lines of: “Write me a line under the moon and fill it with a bag of clichés”—at which point I had to wonder if Davenport was pulling our chain, and that this was really a secret satirical sendup of cinema’s numerous love stories. But the fact that little in the book and lyrics rise above those bland clichés, combined with the inclusion of a fake “letter” from Richard’s brother to explain why he felt the need to publish Richard’s journal (in my mind a cheap shot that should not be necessary), illustrate that, no, this is serious, folks.
Somewhere in Time
Portland Center Stage
Thru June 30
Don’t get me wrong: I’m delighted that Portland Center Stage got to premiere this production and that it might signal more Broadway-bound hopefuls to come (one positive takeaway was that some of PCS's own productions are every bit as good as those soaked with Broadway talent). And I realize that this is very much still a work in progress, and for the sake of all who’ve put enormous time and effort into it, I hope it makes it to the bright lights of the big city. There are a few promising aspects. The production values are among the highest we've seen on a local stage, and director Scott Schwartz makes creative use of Alexander Dodge’s often beautiful minimalist set (although perhaps overuses it’s revolving, Lazy-Susan-style floor piece, such as when Richard clutches his head and exclaims that the world is spinning while the world, yes, spins). There’s also a certain old school charm to some of the songs and John Carrafa’s choreography that will appeal to those who like their musicals old fashioned. But I think, like Richard Collier, this show has a long, long way to travel.