Sometimes, the man behind the music is there for a good reason.
Such is the case with Harold Arlen, the focus of MusicalFare Theatre's eminently well-intentioned but thoroughly underwhelming production of "A Rainbow Journey: The Harold Arlen Story."
A new piece, inspired by former Buffalo News reporter Anthony Violanti and written by his daughter, Heather Violanti, the show can be seen as a retelling of Arlen's story through the lens of his songs -- or vice-versa. However you look at it, "Rainbow Journey" is anything but a simplistic musical revue, and it takes a valiant stab at constructing a compelling sketch of Arlen's rocky and ultimately disappointing life.
At the outset, we see a confused, elderly Arlen (played solidly by John Fredo) at the brink of death in his New York apartment. Assisted by a caretaker (Timothy C. White), he reflects back wistfully on the watershed moments of his life, as the char
acters that peopled it flash now and then into songs that match up -- sometimes tenuously, sometimes hammily -- to those events.
The structural setup is clever and works well at the start. It's a slightly modified version of that in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" or "It's a Wonderful Life," where life flashes before one's eyes to reveal inner worth or wickedness. But after a few flashback-and-forths, scenes with the ambling old Arlen become tedious and distracting, however necessary they are as segues between stories.
There are several charming and revealing anecdotes known about Arlen's life, each of which is approached admirably but is almost always imbued with a sense of awkwardness. It's difficult to tell whether the actors are uncomfortable in their roles or the writing is a bit too clunky and strained. It's likely a combination of both.
However many telling stories about the creation of a song bit or the disintegration of a marriage, there don't seem to be enough to create a truly compelling musical picture.
Though most of the show's jokes are a touch past cornball, there are a couple of funny bits -- notably when Arlen's boyhood piano teacher, Maestro Cornellisan (played the comically brilliant Norman Sham), lectures Arlen to forget about playing jazz and concentrate on Chopin, lest he "waste away in the cabarets."
As for the songs themselves, they are without a doubt the highlight of the show, though the performances -- aside from Fredo's -- are unspectacular. Their timing is the obvious result of a concerted effort to avoid overt cheesiness, which works in spots.
"A Rainbow Journey: The Harold Arlen Story"
Review: Two stars (out of four)
Opened Wednesday and continues through May 20 in MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St., Amherst. For information, call 839-8540 or visit www.musicalfare.com.