Once upon a time, St. Louisans were the most informed musical theatergoers outside New York City. Why? Because back in the 1950s and '60s, even into the '70s, the Muny Opera selected its shows from the vast canvas of the American musical theater. In addition to the classics, nearly every significant musical that opened on Broadway received a production. Only in St. Louis could you see near-misses such as Wish You Were Here and Destry Rides Again in tandem with Kiss Me, Kate and Can-Can -- all in the same season. Alas, those days are long gone. Now, when not recycling tried-and-true megahits, the Muny wastes its prodigious energies on embarrassing vanity productions such as last summer's lamentable Roman Holiday.
So where does one go today to see not merely another revival of My Fair Lady or Damn Yankees but something out of the ordinary? The answer, incredibly, is to Characters & Company, an unpretentious, bare-bones, youth-oriented troupe that consistently offers theatergoers the most imaginative musical fare in town.
Earlier this year, they mounted the rarely seen Rodgers and Hart classic Babes in Arms (last performed at the Muny in 1940). In October they're producing Superman, which likely hasn't been seen in St. Louis since the Muny staged it in 1967, back when that institution was still "alone in its greatness." This week, Characters & Company is offering Smile. If you're unfamiliar with it, not to worry: Only a handful of people have heard of it, and even fewer have seen it. The show died a fast death on Broadway in 1987 after having eked out a brief six-week run.
Yet Smile was actually the longest-running new American musical of the 1986-87 season. (The other four musicals that season each folded in less than a week.) Timing can be critical to commercial success, and the late 1980s, when Broadway theatergoers were mesmerized by Andrew Lloyd Webber imports such as Cats and Phantom of the Opera, was a bad time for anything American. Smile is inherently American. Adapted by Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line) and Howard Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors) from the 1975 film satire Smile (starring Bruce Dern and Michael Kidd), the musical dissects our national fixation on beauty pageants. Ashman and Hamlisch softened some of the film's more lethal barbs. Although their chronicle of the tumultuous, angst-filled week leading up to the crowning of California's Young American Miss is still populated by starry-eyed young girls living with dreams of a glamorous future and by hypocritical adults still trapped in unrealized dreams from the past, the musical is more light spoof than dark satire.
Director Laura Townsend keeps her production moving at a brisk pace. Ironically, her young performers tend to outshine the more experienced adults. Fourteen-year-old Matt Blind already knows more about timing than many actors twice his age. And it's difficult to believe that Rosie Donohue, who so assuredly portrays the overambitious contestant from La Jolla, is only 15.
But the key reason for musical-theater devotees to attend Smile is the rare opportunity to hear the Hamlisch/Ashman score, which, to my knowledge, has never been recorded. It percolates with bright Hamlisch melodies and with the kind of plaintive lyrics Ashman later perfected in such Disney films as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Musical director Meredith Capron sits at the piano and plays this obscure score so exuberantly, you'd think it was an American standard.
It should go without saying that Smile is neither as polished nor as elaborately mounted as what you might see at Stages or the Muny. Yet to have access to this lost musical is to fantasize that "once upon a time" might have returned to St. Louis, however modestly, once again.
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