CITY DREAMS, CITY SCHEMES
Billed as a "rebirth of the old-fashioned American musical where romance was a gentle touch or kiss," City Dreams, City Schemes could be the genre's death knell. Except that no Broadway musical, not even the most imbecilic Victor Herbert operetta, was ever this blissfully brain damaged, combustibly campy, or delightfully dumb. As sincere as it is stupid, it is a show that's hard to hate, if even harder to take.
And yet, directed with deadpan earnestness and plodding inevitability by Harry Silverstein, City Dreams, City Schemes is refreshingly outspoken about its lack of something to say; tenderly and truthfully, it really means every cliche. Returning to a simpler (i.e., cornier) era, it tells the predictable tale of five plucky New York musicians in 1948 who just want to hang out on street corners and play derivative jazz till they're famous.
Of course that's too easy, so writer and lyricist Hyman Mann throws in a bogus conflict involving Mike, a rotten, snarling cop who secretly craves Dawn, the spunky girlfriend of bandleader Johnny. Mike tries to frame the kids with an inept and contrived scheme, but in a drawn-out trial scene the kids turn the tables. Jazz triumphs over constabulary nastiness; even Johnny's nagging Jewish mother is temporarily impressed. Of course the forced happy ending conveniently overlooks the fact that the boys are still just as badly off as before, with no money for the instruments they need to play the big gig they hope will shoot them to the top.
Eric Arunas's synthesizer songs are instantly forgettable, while Mann's lyrics state the obvious over and over. The vile cop is given two songs to make his villainy obvious (a bad childhood made him want a badge so he could get even), and "Rob a Bank" keeps repeating a DOA joke--they couldn't rob a bank when they didn't bring a gun. The exceptions among the 23 songs are the band's two likably lowbrow numbers: the bluesy, silly "I Don't Beat Nobody No More," a version of "Officer Krupke," and the bebop ballad "What's Wrong With You Kid?" But even they are awesomely familiar.
Well-cast and well-intentioned, Silverstein's ensemble can sing up a storm when they need to, especially Rich Brunner and Laura Novak Mead as the lovers and David Six as the cop. But dramatically they're as uneven and community-theatrical as the material; their stage emotions turn on a dime or, like the songs, come from nowhere. The big exception is Rick Dean as the "kid" in the musical gang. Indomitable in his innocence and refusing to simply recycle a stereotype, Dean's scrappy lad virtually reinvents the role of the shy comer, the bright-eyed loser who wants to prove himself to the big boys so badly that no sacrifice is unnecessary.
Larry Frank's bleak gray city backdrop may have aimed for a grungy film noir feel, but it's just a bleak gray city backdrop.
Still, there's no joy in coming down hard on a sweetly simpleminded confection like City Dreams, City Schemes. Though trapped in a very boring time warp, with dialogue so transparent you'd swear it's improvised, it is so unpretentious in its desire to please that you almost forgive its naivete. And I'll take something as happily cliched as this over the elaborately phony pomposity of Cats. Nobody here is trying to pull a fast one--what you hear is all there is.