San Diegans hear a show’s “Broadway bound” so much the tag has lost pizzazz. The Old Globe’s recent musicals — The First Wives’ Club, Sammy, and The Whisper House — came decked with Great White Way hype and crept away like a buck-naked Emperor. The Globe’s current offering, the “Broadway bound” Robin and the 7 Hoods, isn’t an embarrassment. In some ways it’s an embarrassment of riches.
Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen wrote instant hits. It helped, of course, that Frank Sinatra sang “My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)” and “High Hopes,” and Dean Martin, “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head.” The combination made for an indomitable, “top of the heap” attitude. The songs aren’t just upbeat, they’re apple-pie-in-the-sky high — the opposite of the blues. When one of the Rat Pack sang a sad song, you knew it was temporary: Frank, Dean, or Sammy just couldn’t stay down for long.
Robin unfolds like a Greatest Hits of Cahn (lyrics) and Van Heusen (music). Bill Elliott’s fresh, savvy orchestrations — with splashy, intricate grace notes and riffs — and a 13-piece band make familiar songs feel newly minted. Act 2, for example, goes from “(Love Is) The Tender Trap” to “All the Way” to “Come Fly with Me.” Hit songs take off and soar like jets at O’Hare.
The musical’s set in 1962. The director, Casey Nicholaw, also choreographs, and the show is never far from a big production number with early ’60s theatrical exuberance. The moves for “Come Blow Your Horn” have Gene Kelly athleticism. And “Walkin’ Happy” pays tribute to tap dancing. Willie Scarlatti (top-notch Jeffrey Schecter) gives stolen money to the poor. He enters with clicking tap shoes. As greenbacks change hands, more and more Chicagoans arrive, tapping their hearts out. Then the orchestra shuts down, and three groups of dancers do antiphonal statement-and-response steps, and if you love this stuff, it’s worth the price of admission.
The musical’s based, in part, on the 1964 movie (Sinatra, Martin, Sammy D., Peter Faulk as the Sheriff), which, said the hype, took the Robin Hood legend “and changed bows and arrows to machine guns!” It also took a long pilfering look at Guys and Dolls, but that’s another story.
Robbo Ortona, cocky mobster, moves in on P.J. Sullivan’s turf (played as an ironic, cupcake Al Capone by Rick Holmes). Like a blonde Lois Lane, ace reporter Marian Archer muckrakes for truth, justice, and Robbo’s heart. The names correspond to the legend (Maid Marian “archer”: bow and arrow?), though the stories don’t jibe unless you stretch the definition of “outlaw” beyond language and can imagine Sherwood Forest as a tommy gun–infested South Side nightclub.
Rupert Holmes’s book isn’t bad. It’s got banter and snappy one-liners (asked whose idea it was to rob from the rich and give to the poor, Willie replies, “Karl Marx?”). But it’s based on showbiz personalities, not developed fictional characters. In effect, it requires the Rat Pack aura to pull it through. Mere mortals, even backed by top-notch direction and production numbers, pale in comparison.
Eric Schneider has a big voice (he played Frankie in Jersey Boys), but as Robbo he’s more smiling nice guy — even when naughty — than head hood. Will Chase (Little John) has stellar chops, as does Amy Spanger, her Alana being a more arch Adelaide (“a poy-sun…could develop a code”). As Marian, Kelly Sullivan pushes vocally, at times coming up flat. Her and Schneider’s “I Like to Lead When I Dance,” however, is one of the show’s best numbers.
The Old Globe recently made costume designer Gregg Barnes an associate artist. Smart move: his work ranks with Old Globe mainstays Lewis Brown and Robert Morgan. For Robin, along with the thin ties and oil-slick suits from 1962, Barnes adds a real period touch: capri pants. Robert Brill’s solemn box set, building façades, proves serviceable, especially when Kenneth Posner’s lighting tweaks the basic gray.
Like Boeing-Boeing, also set in the early ’60s (the Old Globe has a thing about the period), the characters’ actions and attitudes are dated. Though Holmes has scrubbed the sexism from Frank’s and Dino’s personae, in every scene, someone is either lighting a cigarette or pouring a cocktail — the stimulants du jour of the Mad Men era. They smoke and swill so much in Robin they inspire not awe but thoughts of addictive personalities, desiccated livers, and lung cancer.
If you look past the spectacle, the show-stopping dance numbers in particular, Robin feels like an imitation. It relies on a bygone mystique it can’t conjure. But the Cahn/Van Heusen parade of hits, and Elliott’s orchestrations, almost carry the show, anyway. ■
Robin and the 7 Hoods, book by Rupert Holmes, lyrics by Sammy Cahn, music by Jimmy Van Heusen
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw; cast: Eric Schneider, Adam Heller, Jeffrey Schecter, Sam Prince, Amy Spanger, Rick Holmes, Kelly Sullivan, Will Chase, Anthony Wayne, Aleks Pevec, Beth Johnson Nicely, Stephanie Gibson; scenic design, Robert Brill; costumes, Gregg Barnes; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, John Shivers, David Patridge; orchestrator, Bill Elliott; music director, Mark Hummel
Playing through August 29; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.