By Christopher Caggiano
This new musical is charming and lively, but without some renovation its future life is in question.
The Flamingo Kid, Book & Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman. Music by Scott Frankel. Choreography by Denis Jones. Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Staged by Hartford Stage at 50 Church Street, Hartford, CT, through June 15.
They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
The endearing new musical The Flamingo Kid, currently enjoying its world-premiere engagement at Hartford Stage, is a real throwback, and that’s for the most part a good thing. The show harkens back to a time when musicals really only wanted to entertain. And, hey, what’s wrong with that?
Based on the 1984 Garry Marshall film of the same name, starring a young Matt Dillon, The Flamingo Kid concerns a young man, Jeffrey Winnick, who is lured away from his Brooklyn roots by the seeming glamour of a Long Island resort for the Jewish nouveaux riche. Along the way, Jeffrey wises up to the false promise of the easy life and learns to appreciate his family, in particular his tough but loving father. The story is very similar to that of A Bronx Tale, which recently played an attenuated two-year run on Broadway, but this version of coming-of-age is executed with considerably more charm and humor.
The show’s main asset is its rich, lively score, by turns rollicking and smoothly romantic. The songs feature music by Scott Frankel (Grey Gardens, War Paint) and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder). Frankel really knows his craft; ample evidence is provided by the numerous leitmotivs and dramatically purposeful reprises in the show. (Full disclosure: Frankel and I have been Facebook friends for years. But this production brought us together in person for the first time.)
Freedman’s lyrics reflect genuine craft, which is no surprise considering his witty, erudite wordsmithing for Gentleman’s Guide. Unlike the tunes in all too many new musicals these days, the songs here actually tell the story. (I genuinely wish that weren’t such a distinction.) The only real clunker is “Under the Stars,” a bland romantic duet in the second act; it was the only time during the production that my attention flagged.
Flamingo Kid‘s book is genuinely funny, but it will need some fixes in terms of character motivation and development if the show is going to have any future. A number of plot devices feel manufactured; for example, when Jeffrey’s new girlfriend abruptly becomes mad at him and then forgives him just as quickly. There’s an implied sex scene that needs a bit more narrative setup. The pair share a seemingly innocent kiss on the beach, then they’re suddenly naked and wrapped in sheets.
The show currently features a few too many minor characters than is probably wise, including two generic buddies for Jeffrey from the old neighborhood. Then there’s a figure who supposedly observes all of the card games at the resort, a sort of good luck charm for one of the card-playing bigwigs. This cypher disappears, and then reappears, at the convenience of the plot.
More important, the central relationship between Jeffrey and his father needs more heft. There’s a story element about a lighthouse that arrives too late and feels tacked on. And the dad spends too much time on stage being angry. There’s not enough bonding time with his son, which throws off one of the central arcs of the show. This imbalance undercuts the otherwise superlative work from Adam Heller as the father.
Director Darko Tresnjak keeps the pace brisk and the comedy sharp. (This production marks his swan song as Hartford Stage’s artistic director.) Still, Tresnjak makes a few questionable staging choices, including a laughable off-stage chorus moment and projections of hearts bubbling up behind the young couple at the end of their initial love song. Both ideas might work if the rest of the musical was as self-consciously tongue in cheek — but it isn’t, so they feel anomalous.
Denis Jones’s lively choreography is another production highlight. Jones may be the most promising rising choreographer in the business. His dances for Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn were astounding in their variety, specificity, and sense of build. His work on The Flamingo Kid is varied and arresting, comfortably familiar yet with a spark or two of originality.
Newcomer Jimmy Brewer as Jeffrey represents a considerable find. The performer makes for a captivating and disarming lead, particularly impressive given the strong Broadway-caliber cast surrounding him. Brewer has a strong singing voice, terrific stage presence, and comes off as dorkily sexy, as befits the role.
Lesli Margherita and Marc Kudisch likewise flourish in roles — as the central rich couple who seemingly have it all — that feel tailor-made for their considerable talents. Margherita is given a knockout solo number in the second act called “The Cookie Crumbles” in which she warns Jeffrey’s girl not to make the same mistakes she did. It’s a terrific song; Margherita gives it a powerhouse performance.
The old-fashioned nature of The Flamingo Kid is both a key to its charm and a potential liability for its commercial survival. In a marketplace stuffed with musical movie adaptations, is this a ‘classic’ film that people are craving to see musicalized? Is there enough brand recognition generated by the source to offset the throwback nature of the show’s tone and execution? Hopefully, someone with patience will take the time to deal with these questions, because this is a show that certainly warrants another draft or two.
Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on TheaterMania.com and ZEALnyc.com.