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February 9th, 2010


I've written about Encores! before, when I saw the musical of Juno and the Paycock two years ago.  What with one thing and another, it's taken us this long to get to another performance, but we did:  Harold Rome's Fanny.  Rome (for those of you whose memories need jogging) is best known for I Can Get It For You Wholesale, Barbra Streisand's first Broadway musical.

I loved Fanny

We have already established in these (blog) pages that I don't think "sentimental" is a dirty word--as long as the emotion is honestly earned, that I adore a good cry--as long as I don't feel jerked around, and that I consider "old fashioned" a term of art, not an insult.  So you'll know I'm not damning with faint praise when I say that Fanny is  an old-fashioned, sentimental romance of a very particular type.  I am actually going to quote my friend Dan Jacobsen (who knows much and has thought deeply about musical comedy) on what type that is:

This is one of at least three musicals of the classic age of Broadway that tell the story of a young woman who weds an older man in a marriage of convenience, briefly abandons him for a passionate fling with a sexually irresistible younger man, but comes back to the husband in the end (in two cases with a new baby, not her husband's) as she "matures" and realizes that long-term stability and material comfort trump the fires of instant passion.  The others are Steven Schwartz's "The Baker's Wife" (1976), like "Fanny" based on a story by Marcel Pagnol, and Frank Loesser's "The Most Happy Fella" (1957).   As an additional sidelight, this situation is also key to the plot of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," in which the heroine Tatyana, having been spurned by the dashing Onegin, marries the elderly Prince Gremin (who has the opera's most moving aria, in which he sings of how his young wife has brought youth and happiness to his declining years), and, in spite of her continuing passion for him, spurns Onegin when he returns, urging her to run away with him.
In all these cases a young and beautiful woman turns away the advances of a handsome young man in favor of fidelity to an old, but kind and compassionate (and well-to-do) grandpa.  Do I sense a common strain of wish-fulfillment running through the minds of the all-male creators of these fictions?  The urge for authors to present, and audiences to accept and applaud, such May-December romances  runs counter to an older Western tradition, dating back at least to the medieval fablieau (see Chaucer) and up through Restoration and 18th C. comedy, in which elderly suitors were considered fit objects for ridicule, suitable to be tricked by the handsome young lovers, their moneybags taken, and the young lovers winding up married at the end -- to each other, as is fitting.  Somehow, following the Age of Sentiment (the early 19th C.), possibly under the influence of Jane Austen, the elderly suitor changed status from clown and dupe to sympathetic hero.  I'm sure this was most gratifying to the middle-aged male members of the audience for a play, and continues to be so today."

And he's right, although I didn't think of it that way while I was watching it.  What I was thinking about was how the young and beautiful woman was not punished horribly for having slept with a guy or even having a baby.  Her mother didn't disown her (for more than two lines of dialogue), nobody called her a whore, the November suitor did not threaten or denigrate her or despise her.  As far as I can tell, the only bad thing that happens to her is that the genuinely kind and very funny M. Panisse dies at the end, leaving her to marry the drifting, bitter, womanizing Marius, who loved her and left her for the sea in the first place.  And I'm sorry, all the verbiage about how he's learned his lesson and is going to be a good boy now wasn't nearly as convincing as the song about how he loves adventure and the sea.  Maybe it was because Fred Applegate is a much more appealing (and accomplished) actor than James Snyder.  Or maybe it's because I'm closer to Panisse's age than Marius, who would never have appealed to me in the first place.  If there's going to be any wanderlust in the family, it should be shared.

As always, the ingenue was a docile, saintly (with one slip) place-holder, but Elena Shaddow, who was the girl in The Light in the Piazza did her level best with her, and has a lovely, clear voice.  And I can forgive a lot to a musical whose first number, "The Octopus Song," includes the line "Eight loving arms to hold me."  And one of whose tenderest love songs is called "The Cold-Cream Jar Love Song."

It's always amazing to me how much Encores! can do with half a stage (the back half is where the orchestra sits), minimal scenery (two signs, some tables, an ottoman, a bar on wheels), costumes, and actors who go through their parts holding (and in George Hearn's case, reading most of his part from) the script because it's not worth their while to memorize all that for a one-night stand.  At one point, the clowns at Cesario's birthday party were juggling with the scripts, which had the audience in stitches.

It'll never be mounted, no not in a million years.  But I'm sure glad I saw it.


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