*published 5 Sept 2014 on The EDGE
To say that “Red Eye of Love” had a long voyage to its present incarnation is a proverbial understatement. The current musical began life in 1961 at the iconic Living Theater, as a wild romp of a play by experimentalist Arnold Weinstein. It was originally directed by John Wulp, who won a directing Obie back in the day, and became the work’s unflagging champion. It is because of Wulp’s devotion and stellar reputation in the theater world that nearly five decades after a first bow “Red Eye of Love” is back, and with a modern vigor.
This is a romantic musical with a stunning cast, a beautifully realized presentation and a message for our times. But it is wacky, non-linear, confusing, poetic and sometimes flabbergasting. The premise that rings as true now, (sadly) as it did in the ’60s, is that artists and the 99 percent are constantly making choices between having a safe, happy life and “selling out,” as folks used to say.
The ingénue Selma Chargess, played with adorable aplomb by Alli Mauzey (who can warble and hoof with equal measure and win the hearts of all around her), is engaged to Meat Magnate O. O. Martinas. He is an older man who has made his fortune building a mega store for meat. Weinstein was prescient in ascribing the ability to amass millions in a niche market. One could not have conceived in the era of the Vietnam War that cold pressed juice, boutique water or thousand dollar jeans would become huge franchises.
But O.O. as he is called makes the big bucks selling venison, chops, brisket and beyond — in fact, Brisket and Beyond might have been the stores’ name if it had been written today. Kevin Pariseau of “Legally Blonde” fame gives life to O.O. as a smarmy, mustachioed villain, with a deeply hidden heart of gold. The entire work harkens back to musicals and films of the ’40s where damsels are in distress and need rescuing.
Selma is a sad wife to O.O., avoiding his bed and working in the meat mart, but longing for something more when she encounters hardship Wilmer Flange. Wilmer, played by Josh Grisetti, has a hangdog exterior and a tenor voice to beat the band. He has little ambition other than to find “the key” whatever that may be.
The key to the success of this show is the terrific cast. The ensemble is diverse and remarkable and features Katie Chung, Daniel Lynn Evans, Katie Hagen and Sam Tanabe. Of special mention are Tracie Franklin who gets a star turn as a singer in a ’40s boite with a smoky song and a silky voice, and Daniel May embodying a very funny Japanese-German hybrid soldier who can dance and prance with the best of them.
The music has recently received a complete overhaul, the original score by Jan Warner having been dubbed “too complicated and more like an opera score.” So a young composer, Sam Davis, was brought in to create an upbeat ’40s-type score played masterfully on two ever-present dueling pianos front and center.
The musicians are Roberto Sinha and Greg Jarrett, who is also the musical director. At times I think the casts’ excellent music chops might have been well challenged by more complicated musical memes, because when harmonies and dissonance did enter, I found myself perking up and saying, ‘Ahh yes, this is something.’
Ted Sperling, who most recently won a Tony for orchestrating “The Light in the Piazza,” directs the Amas Musical Theater’s evening. The show moves at a great clip as we evolve past the love affair and into the Depression, World War II and economic recovery, but credit is also due to choreographers Lainie Sakakura and Alex Sanchez for high kicks and more.
The design features a backdrop by acclaimed painter Robert Indiana, enhanced admirably with projections by David Wilson. Even the lights and costumes by Matthew Richards and Martha Bromelmeier respectively need to get applause as they really create a fully realized historic sense.
The second act is where this work really begins to dig deep and cross over to addressing some of the thorny economic issue that have not ceased to plague us. Among them is how our economy uses the economically unempowered to fight wars, while not recognizing their contributions upon return. The creatives who long to discover, in this case, a special toy, to make our contribution to society, only to see that those who are valued most make mega markets of meat or cashmere or juice.
In the end all three star-crossed lovers are united in a troika that may or may not move forward to the land of happily ever after. But it does reinforce the concept that if every member of the one percent “adopted” two from the ninety-nine percent we might all have our lives enhanced.
“Red Eye of Love” runs through September 28 at Dicapo Opera Theatre, 184 East 76th Street. For information or tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com/redeye