"You saw the show," one character asks another in the musical Lyle. "What did you think?"
"It needs more laughs," the second person responds.
Unfortunately, Lyle needs a lot more than extra laughs. Characters that an audience can give a damn about would be nice for starters. So would a score that contained at least one song worth remembering, or a script that did more than depend on allegedly cute kids and animals for its appeal.
Composer Charles Strouse and playwright Thomas Meehan's previous collaboration was Annie, a big hit that also told the story of a little kid and her pet. But Annie, for all its show-biz schlockiness, had a lead character whose problems involved the audience; though no one expected the comic-strip story to end any way other than happily, there was an urgent edge to Annie's predicaments. Lyle lacks any such urgency.
The meandering story, loosely based on Bernard Waber's 1962 children's book The House on East 88th Street, tells of Josh Primm, a boy whose family moves to New York and finds a crocodile named Lyle swimming around in the bathtub of their new home. (In Waber's book, Lyle only eats Turkish caviar, one of many whimsical touches the musical has unfortunately dispensed with without substituting anything worthwhile.)
Lyle, abandoned by its former owner, an on-the-skids vaudevillian, turns out to be not only tame but talented: it rolls over, does somersaults, dances, and hits home runs. Not at all surprisingly, Lyle becomes Josh's beloved pet and the pride of the neighborhood, conquering fear and cruelty wherever it meets them. The vaudevillian returns to reclaim the creature, and a scientist tries to buy Lyle so she can subject the beast to various painful experiments. Josh just wants his pet. Awwww.
Played as bold, cartoonish fantasy along the lines of Annie or The Little Shop of Horrors, Lyle might begin to work--if the story's events weren't so predictable, if the characters had an ounce of individuality, and if the production directed at the Forum Theatre by Strouse's wife, Barbara Siman (with tacky choreography by Siman and Bob Bowyer, and dreary set by Michael Philippi) had an ounce of charm and energy beyond the prefab raucousness of its chorus of neighborhood kids--a fairly lame lot, who are no match for Annie's urchins. But Siman and Strouse (who, besides writing the songs, conceived the work after scoring an HBO animated film based on the Lyle character) have decided to treat the show in a standard, seminaturalistic musical-comedy vein. Lyle, played by the agile dancer Zane Rankin in Cynthia Maniates's cumbersome costume, looks sort of realistic, which is to say ugly, but not realistic enough to be astounding when he dances in a conga line or runs out into the theater or jumps through a flaming hoop. Lyle would be much better designed in a more caricatured style, like the playful illustrations in Waber's original book.
Lyle has much bigger problems than crocodile cosmetics, though. Strouse, a talented and accomplished theater composer, has written successful musicals in the past, including Bye Bye Birdie and Applause. Those shows had an all-important element Lyle lacks: a lyricist other than Strouse. Lacking the creative inspiration and verbal inventiveness provided by a Lee Adams (Birdie) or a Martin Charnin (Annie), Strouse provides songs that are generic at best. In one scene, the vaudevillian sings a number whose words are a collection of pop-song cliches ("I did it my way," "The sun will come out tomorrow"). The joke gets a laugh--but the audience's amusement is informed by a sad awareness that even those pat phrases have more spark than the bland banalities Strouse comes up with on his own.
The opening-night audience, aware that Lyle's debut had been postponed a week on short notice, came to the Forum Theatre expecting to see something with flaws--but not something as numbingly dull and dismal as this turned out to be. The worst thing about the production--besides the waste of good performers such as Gene Weygandt, Anne Gunn, Dennis Kelly, Iris Lieberman, David Bedella, Catherine Lord, Michael McCauley, Gordon McClure, and Cheridah Best--is that it's being used to prove the notion that Chicago, already an actor's town, is increasingly becoming a place where established writers come to unveil new material. If the best a seasoned pro like Charles Strouse can give Chicago audiences is an overhyped, undernourished flop like Lyle, local audiences can't be blamed for staying home by the tube until Les Miserables or The Phantom of the Opera come to town.