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Theatre in Review: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Melissa Errico, Stephen Bogardus. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Ever since On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, a musical about ESP and past-life regression, opened on Broadway in 1965, it has undergone more reincarnations than Shirley MacLaine. Time and again, creative teams have been seduced into believing that this famously troubled show, with its glorious score and every-which-way book, can be fixed; so far, this dream has proven to be elusive. In keeping with the show's theme, however, it is apparently fated to keep returning from the other side until somebody gets it right.

You don't need the I Ching to divine that this Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane heartbreaker has trouble built into its DNA. The premise is a prime bit of pure-Sixties foolishness, wedding the era's obsessions with Freud and pop occultism: Mark Bruckner, a psychiatrist, hypnotizes Daisy Gamble, a kooky young female patient who wants to give up smoking. (In the Irish Rep version, she fears that her cigarette habit is preventing her from getting a good job. Really? In 1965?) In a trance, Daisy -- who says she can coax flowers out of the ground and who is gifted with ESP -- reverts to an earlier identity as Melinda, a saucy minx in Georgian England, who beguiles the doctor; meanwhile, Daisy thinks he is interested in the present-day her. It's original idea, to be sure -- a romantic triangle with only two corporeal participants -- but the result was a mishmash of wisecracking contemporary comedy, bodice-ripping historical romance, and woo-woo speculation about the spirit world.

Originally titled I Picked a Daisy, the show had Richard Rodgers on board until the composer departed, thanks to Lerner's inability to deliver a finished libretto. Burton Lane, who had worked with Lerner on a couple of films, stepped in, but the Boston tryout was a classic nightmare, with leading man Louis Jourdan decamping while Lerner, distracted by an extramarital affair and ministered to by the amphetamine-pushing Max Jacobson, struggled to make revisions. On arrival in New York, everyone cheered the songs and leading lady Barbara Harris, but neither were enough to make the show a hit. (As the critic and historian Ken Mandelbaum has noted, the audience, in opposition to Bruckner, preferred Daisy to Melinda.) Lerner revised the book, eliminating a major character, for the national and bus-and-truck tour, and he made many more changes -- none of them in the cause of clarity -- for Vincente Minnelli's film, starring Barbra Streisand. We'll draw a veil over the misbegotten 2011 revision, which awkwardly inserted a gay angle, making a total hash of an already frail plot.

Now Charlotte Moore, artistic director of the Irish Rep, in the interest of creating a chamber version of the musical, further tampers with the script, eliminating two major characters -- Warren, Daisy's conventional fiance, and Kriakos, a Greek millionaire who offers to finance Bruckner's research -- dropping several numbers and adding one cut from the film (which was sung by none other than Jack Nicholson!). Indeed, she has trimmed the book back to nothing, the better to highlight the songs. Well, it's an approach, but removing several foundational elements makes the plot, if possible, even more slapdash and reduces the characters to ciphers. The character of Warren at least created a little dramatic tension: Daisy was torn between a conventional marriage to a controlling corporate type and a richer, more intellectually adventurous life with Bruckner; eliminating Warren reduces the conflict to zero, and it deprives the charming jazz waltz "Wait Till We're Sixty-Five" -- Warren's fantasy of a blissful retirement -- of any reason for being. (The character is still present, but in name only; he makes no claim to Daisy.) The subplot featuring Kriakos always seemed like one narrative thread too many, but without him the second act is alarmingly thin. As ever, the Melinda scenes are inert, raising the question of what Bruckner sees in her. In previous versions, Melinda was a romantic rebel, then a blackmailer; here, she is an abolitionist, an out-of-left-field choice that has been affixed to her like a label.

What remains are the delightful songs and the cast. You may wonder why the Irish Rep is reviving the work of two Jewish musical-theatre specialists, but it clearly has been chosen as a vehicle for Melissa Errico, the company's head colleen. In truth, the role isn't a natural fit for her; she doesn't have the eccentric comic temperament of a Barbara Harris -- Kristen Chenoweth, in a production at Encores! at City Center, was closer to the mark -- and at times she seems to be channeling Streisand's line readings. (Her onstage transitions from Daisy to Melinda are seamlessly achieved, however, a fine demonstration of her acting skills.) The excisions of the script have also further diminished the character of Daisy. Still, she has "Hurry, It's Lovely Up Here," a charmer that displays her magical botanical abilities; "On the S. S. Bernard Cohn," her delightful account of a night out with Bruckner; and the touching and funny torch song "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" The Bruckner-Daisy relationship carries faint echoes of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, but the role of Bruckner, never well-defined to begin with, is whittled down to nothing here, leaving Stephen Bogardus to stand around smiling with a faint look of panic in his eyes. However, he is stalwart in delivering "Melinda," which goes a long way toward explaining the doctor's obsession with a long-dead woman; the rousing, witty "Come Back to Me"; and the alluring title tune. As Melinda's eighteenth-century swain, John Cudia does beautifully by the ballad "She Wasn't You."

Moore's direction is hampered by her script, which makes it impossible to believe that anything real is happening between Bruckner and Melinda, but her creative team makes many fine contributions. The musical director, John Bell, has gotten sterling vocal work from the company as a whole, and Barry McNabb's choreography often livens things up. James Morgan's set features a series of casually attractive watercolor views of New York streets and skylines and vintage London townhouses which are delivered by the projection designer, Ryan Belock. Whitney Locher's costumes include both kicky Sixties designs and sumptuous frock coats and period gowns. Mary Jo Dondlinger's lighting faithfully delineates both time frames and Daisy's various mental states. M. Florian Staab's sound design is either understated or nonexistent in terms of vocal reinforcement -- I couldn't see mics on the performers -- which isn't unpleasant; he has also provided a few key effects.

The Irish Rep likes to do a musical each summer, and for fans of the show -- or of Errico -- this may well be enough, as long as they know what they're getting into. But it may be time to finally let On a Clear Day You Can See Forever go to that place of eternal rest -- at least until the next time someone thinks he or she has the solution to what Alan Jay Lerner wrought. -- David Barbour

(13 July 2018)

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