It’s a strange set up, this 1965 musical with music by Burton Lane (the 1940 Hold On to Your Hats)and a book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner (Brigadoon, Gigi) that was based loosely on the play Berkeley Square, written in 1929 by John L. Balderston. On a Clear Day You Can See Forever centers around the idea of hypnosis and reincarnation, while basically being a sweet charming love story, boasting one of Broadway’s most beautiful and beloved scores. After last year’s sold and successful run of Lane’s Finian’s Rainbow, one that I unfortunately never got a chance to see, the Irish Rep has brought back Lane’s other great musical, one that revolves around the charming and pluckish Daisy Gamble, played adoringly by the fabulous Melissa Errico (Irish Rep’s Finian’s Rainbow, Broadway’s Amour, White Christmas). Daisy, saddled with a charming and useful sense of ESP, tries to give up smoking but instead finds love and romance, oddly out of step with her current time period. Errico singing “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” can’t be missed, even though it’s about potted plants rather than something more endearingly romantic. When it first hit Broadway, On a Clear Day… with its leads, Barbara Harris and John Cullum, was not well received by the critics, with most commenting that the musical’s “book was strained and muddled” and “its big production numbers were simply cumbersome” ( Ben Brantley of the New York Times), the score was well-regarded and in the end, it received three Tony Award nominations (Best Score, Best Leading Actor, Best Leading Actress).
This musical tale, with a plot that jumps back and forth between 1960’s New York City and 18th Century England, flowers pretty beautifully on that small stage on West 22nd Street. The music, performed by a very small orchestra of five (music director: John Bell; conductor: Gary Adler; orchestrations: Josh Clayton) sitting sweetly tucked into the corner of James Morgan’s (York’s Unexpected Joy) well conceived set (spotty lighting by Mary Jo Dondlinger; sound design by M. Florian Staab), sings and flourishes upward gorgeously “as if the cops were after them“. Performed by the strongly voiced ensemble, reduced from 47 to a talented 11, the title song, sung from the stairs, rises and releases its beautiful aroma over the crowd. It has an echo of a love song, wandering through a memory, and it’s all begins with the desire to quit smoking through the hypnotic guidance of the eager Dr. Mark Bruckner, played by Stephen Bogardus (Broadway’s Falsettos, Bright Star), who’s more interested in her ESP and telekinetic powers than her sweet nature. Her back story, significantly changed from the original, dumps the boyfriend, Warren completely from the picture and inserts her own personal drive for employment and life fulfillment.
It’s no surprise that Errico is sublime in the part, her voice is made for such things, and in many ways, this musical parallels the structure of the much stronger Lerner musical, My Fair Lady, in which Errico performed gloriously as Eliza Doolittle on Broadway back in 1993. The young lower class strongly-accented female, seeking help from the hypnotherapist doctor, discovers love and engagement, but only when the more refined lady that lives somewhere inside presents herself. This time, instead of lessons in enunciation, the doctor, using his specialty, unlocks Daisy’s past-self, an 18th Century British aristocrat named Melinda Wells. And just like Harry Higgins, he falls for the well spoken Melinda, as he watches her relive her great love affair with the artist, Edward Moncrief, played majestically by the strong voiced and handsome John Cudia (Broadway’s 12th Phantom of the Opera). It’s a ridiculous set up, but you can’t help but be pulled into the story in much the same way that we watch Daisy throw caution to the wind and gamble on love with her doctor. It’s sweet and adorable, and even though Bogardus seems to struggle with some of the high notes and the emotional engagement with the charming Errico, we shrug off the impossibilities and embrace the flower of a musical that is growing strongly in front of us against the lovely water colored projections created by designer Ryan Belock (NYTW’s Sojourners, Her Portmanteau) on the back wall.
As wisely and clearly directed and adapted by Charlotte Moore (Brian Friel’s The Home Place), One a Clear Day…sidesteps the awkwardness that has always caused problems within every production. A revised Broadway production at the St. James Theatre in 2011, starring Harry Connick Jr. and Jessie Mueller (directed by Michael Mayer and with a new book by Peter Parnell), tried hard to depart from the silly plot of the original, revising the central patient as a gay florist David (David Turner) with a female jazz singer Melinda (Mueller) embedded inside his reincarnated psyche who, naturally, falls in love with his psychiatrist, widower Dr. Mark Bruckner (Connick). Now who wouldn’t fall for that man, I might add, but this reworked revival didn’t solve the problematic issues that exist in Lane’s book as the production only lasted, even with that strong cast, a mere 29 previews and 57 performances before closing.
The 1970 film version, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring a young 22-year-old Barbra Streisand, is adored as it tried a few new restructuring itself, departing from the musical significantly by adding a character for Jack Nicholson to play (an ex-stepbrother named “Tad”), changing numerous character details, pushing Melinda’s fantastical life ahead into the early 19th century, removing several songs, changing numerous lyrics and inserting two new songs. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote that it was “a movie of fits and starts” and “because the fits are occasionally so lovely, and the starts somewhat more frequent than Fifth Avenue buses, I was eventually hypnotized into a state of benign though not-quite-abject permissiveness“. I’ve never seen it, but my curiosity has been heightened by this production and that quote, although the criticism seems similar in theme.
I can’t say that director/adapter Moore, with clumsy choreography by Barry McNabb (Irish Rep’s New Girl in Town) solves the dilemmas that exist inside this romantic daisy, but the music shines through, rising gloriously upward through the stairwell like the flowers in Daisy’s pots. The witty dialogue and the equally engaging cast (Florrie Bagel, William Bellamy, Rachel Coloff, Peyton Crim, Caitlin Gallogly, Matt Gibson, Daisy Hobbs, and Craig Waletzko) bring their pajama-clad bunny-slippered (sweet costuming by Whitney Locher) characters up high to that lovely place on the roof, where we gladly join in to the sweetness of the sunny light. The plot may live in the weeds, but the musical score resides in the blossoming flower of Errico, Cudia, and company. It grows high up into the sky, allowing us to truly see forever, and that view is clear and gloriously fun. Just do yourself a favor, and don’t think too hard about it all as you watch it grow.
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