REVIEWS: The High Life

The High Life: The Formerly Gay Musical October 24, 2005
Reviewed by Michael Dale

When The Gay Life opened on Broadway in 1961, the majority of theatre-goers probably still interpreted the title as meaning joyous and elegant, especially as it pertained to the musical's locale of 1904 Vienna. But time has antiquated that definition and those who license rights to perform the show have altered its name to The High Life in order to avoid confusion. (Except perhaps for a few stoners who might have been expecting the musical version of Reefer Madness.) But gay or high, this champagne cocktail of a musical by Arthur Schwartz (music), Howard Dietz (lyrics) and Fay & Michael Kanin (book) is just the kind of overlooked charmer that Musicals Tonight! does so well.

Based on Arthur Schnitzler's popular 1893 play, Anatol, The Gay Life lasted a mere three months on Broadway, despite the presence of Barbara Cook, Jules Munchin and Tony-nominated Elizabeth Allen. Some say the heavily-accented Italian film actor Walter Chiari, making his Broadway and musical comedy debut, was not the best choice for the leading role, and with so many top-flight and/or star-driven musicals around at the time, The Gay Life, despite a charming score and a funny book, was lost among the competition.

The lady-loving playboy Anatol (Paul Jason Green) has decided he's ready for a wife. ("I'm finished with love. I'm going to get married.") His best friend Max (Doug Shapiro) has a younger sister, Liesl (Jenni Barber) who has always had a crush on him an seems the perfect candidate. But it's not until the innocent frau stands up for herself and demands fidelity from her fiance' that Anatol truly begins to love and respect her.

Though the score produced no hit songs, it's a perfectly charming mixture of traditional Broadway and operetta. The book and lyrics are often quite clever and sentimental without getting syrupy.

In the leading roles, Paul Jason Green has a pleasant light baritone and a nice, laid-back manner as the young cad, Anatol. Jenni Barber has a lovely traditional Broadway soprano and a charming humor as the ingenue trying to be seen as a woman. Doug Shapiro, in the juicy role of Max, get the funniest lines and delivers them with cracker-jack timing. His rich singing voice is featured in some of the score's cleverest numbers. As a variety of Anatol's lovers, Barbara McCulloh is a delicious vixen. (Gentlemen -- if you sit on the aisle, watch out for her!)

Thomas Mills, who has been directing for Musicals Tonight! since the company's inception, stages the show with his usual brisk tempo and straightforward style, giving the audience a sense of what the show could be like in a full production. The chorus sounds terrific under music director James Stenborg.

The High Life may no longer be gay, but it's still a delight.

The High Life
Online Review by John Esche

I hope lots of Listers got to one of the performances of THE GAY LIFE over at Mel Miller's Musicals Tonight on 45th Street (MEL was contractually obligated to call it THE HIGH LIFE thanks to the renaming inspiration - under the perceived pressure of changing times - of one of our fellow Listers). It ends its limited run with a long sold out run today.

While Fay & Michael Kanin's book (out of Colette) isn't a lost masterpiece by any means, it is far more stageworthy than the show's reputation (or even the lovely cast album originally on Capitol) would have it, despite a somewhat ragged mix of delicious and just miss Howard Dietz lyrics to Arthur Schwartz's generally superlative music. The extra verses and reprises they couldn't find room for on the LP in 1961 were generally as much fun as all the material we ARE familiar with, and the simple but solid story they support brings continual smiles.

I wasn't as blown away by Mel's "Liesel" (Jenni Barber, fresh in from University of Michigan) as many were, but she acted the role beautifully, sang it well and the BOOK sets up "Magic Moment" so well, you can understand why those who saw Barbara Cook's pure soprano in the original can never forget it. I've been raving about Paul Jason Green's natural sense of physical comedy since seeing him waltz away with Mel's CHOCOLATE SOLDIER in the title role. If only Broadway were doing the number of light comedies it used to, he'd already be a star (nobody ever asked Robert Redford ofrJames Dean to sing TOO). His "Anatol" was limited a bit in THE GAY LIFE by the material, and as right as Green's charming instrument is for Mel's space, he could use a bigger singing voice for Broadway (seems like ALL the critics said essentially the same thing about Walter Chiari! Maybe it's the material). Green IS perfect casting however for Mel - as was the entire cast, right down to his pianist/arranger (and loyal List lurker) Jim Stenborg. Not even a HINT of a reservation however about Mel's "Magda" (the Elizabeth Allen role). Barbara McCulloh gave a bravura, Broadway performance in that intimate Off-Broadway space. Let me tell you it didn't matter a BIT that she sat on my lap during her big number (I'd usually hate that) - I want to revive every Lyda Roberti role for this woman to play, and I can't wait to see what else she can do. Her Broadway credits reveal everything from a Mrs. Darling opposite Kathy Rigby to a Mrs. Anna opposite Lou Diamond Philips (understudy?). McCulloh was (and I suspect is) nothing short of spectacular and the rest of the audience seemed to agree.

Mel's plunging right into a GOOD NEWS next (Nov. 1 - 13) and I'm sure it will pack his place, but I've seen enough GOOD NEWS productions. I know Mel's will be more "authentic" than Harry Rigby's Broadway revisal in 1974, but I suspect I'd inordinantly miss the young Wayne Bryan performing the interpolated "Never Swat A Fly". I'm *really* looking forward to Mel's next glimpse back to operetta with Victor Herbert's MADEMOISELLE MODISTE from March 21 to April 2. Mel follows that with Kern's OH LADY! LADY! (April 25 - May 2) and Cole Porter's LET'S FACE IT (May 9 - 21).

The High Life (In Concert)
Back Stage October 21, 2005
Reviewed by David A. Rosenberg

I swear it's not just because Barbara McCulloh sat on my lap during her song "Come A-Wandering With Me" that I was infatuated with her performance as three different femme fatales in The High Life at the 45th Street Theatre. In Musicals Tonight!'s pleasant concert presentation of the mild operetta from 1961 (called The Gay Life then and lasting 113 performances on Broadway), McCulloh (a cross between Joan Greenwood and Martha Raye) is a delicious, high-wattage vamp, tucking the evening ever so firmly into her bodice.

Based on Arthur Schnitzler's Anatol, a picaresque tale of a rake's progress through the boudoirs of Vienna, the musical is less witty and erotic than its source. Rather, the adaptation by book writers Michael and Fay Kanin, with music and lyrics by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, is closer to, and a pale imitation of, Lerner and Loewe's 1958 film Gigi.

The plot is similar: Anatol is tamed by Liesl, a young woman whom he looks upon merely as the younger sister of his best friend, Max. But the realization of his romantic attraction here comes as an afterthought, with the climactic boy-almost-loses-girl moment occurring deep into Act II.

The score has its compensations, with the breakout "Who Can? You Can" and a pair of lilting songs for Liesl, "Magic Moment" and "Something You've Never Had Before." But the lyrics are only competent and the book is humorless.

Director-choreographer Thomas Mills uses the tiny stage to advantage -- it never seems cramped -- and James Stenborg does splendid work as music director, vocal arranger, and lone pianist.

Paul Jason Green is an ingratiating Anatol, with Jenni Barber a silver-voiced Liesl (the Barbara Cook role) and Doug Shapiro a comical Max. Others in the musically accomplished ensemble are Nicolas Dávila, Kyrst Hogan, Dennis Holland, Nehal Joshi, Hannah Knowlton, Meredith Pryce, Roger Rifkin, Reshma Shetty, Deborah Jean Templin, and Matthew Trombetta.

Presented by Musicals Tonight!, casting by Stephen DeAngelis, at the 45th Street Theatre, 354 W. 45th St., NYC, Oct. 18-30. Tue.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Wed., Sat., and Sun., 2:30 p.m. (212) 868-4444.

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