Alice Ripley and Gregory Jbara in Everybody’s Talkin: The Music of Harry Nilsson at San Diego Rep
  • Alice Ripley and Gregory Jbara in Everybody’s Talkin: The Music of Harry Nilsson at San Diego Rep
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Everybody's Talkin': The Music of Harry Nilsson

“Goin’ where the sun keeps shining/Thru the pouring rain/Goin’ where the weather suits my clothes…” To those who recall when Midnight Cowboy came out, the lyrics conjure up Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight scuffling down wet Manhattan streets, people staring, and Hoffman suddenly blurting, “Um WALKIN’ he-yah!”

In the movie, the “where” they’re goin’ is Florida. But Harry Nilsson’s lyrics are wide open to personal interpretations.

He died of a heart attack in 1994. His music now lives in tribute albums, especially For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson (1995), in movie soundtracks for “Jump into the Fire” (Goodfellas); “Coconut” (Reservoir Dogs), “Me and My Arrow” (The Point), plus “Best Friend,” the theme song for TV’s The Courtship of Eddie’s Father: “People let me tell ya ‘bout ma be-est friend…” (which always sounded to me like a parody of John Sebastian).

One of those double-take facts: Nilsson didn’t write the song that made him famous. Fred Neil wrote “Everybody’s Talkin’.” But in a career that burned the candle at both ends, and up through the middle, Nilsson composed a body of work so eclectic and iconoclastic that labels fail to stick.

Conceived by Steve Gunderson and Javier Velasco — gifted theater persons both — Everybody’s Talkin’: The Music of Harry Nilsson, also resists labels. Velasco includes stage business and choreography, so it isn’t simply a greatest hits concert. And Gunderson’s arrangements rarely feature a single song. As he did with the excellent Back to Bacharach, Gunderson weaves familiar and unfamiliar tunes. One invokes another, as when “The Puppy Song” conjures “Me and My Arrow”; or “All My Life” (which could use more growl) triggers the rocking “Jump Into the Fire,” and the group, restrained almost to the point of Easy Listening up to now, finally gets to cut loose.

Kurt Norby, Gregory Jbara, Alice Ripley in Everybody’s Talkin: The Music of Harry Nilsson at San Diego Rep

The arrangements are so intricate and so well performed they create an auditory tapestry – but a lengthy one, even for fans of Nilsson. The world premiere needs trimming: is “Good Old Desk” really necessary? And “Goin’ Down” — done so cartoony?

The framing device appears to be a rehearsal. If so, it’s an appropriately anti-lavish take on Nilsson’s opus. The five-person band sits center stage. Talented musical director Korrie Paliotto waves hand-cues from the piano — letter B, two, three — and sometimes sings along. The performers address each other by name: “Alice” (Ripley), “Gregory” (Jbara), and “Kurt” (Norby).

So are they just themselves in rehearsal? Or playing characters with their names going from childhood through labyrinthine relationships to ultimate affirmation? Are they autobiographical? Not clear. That sometimes they emote and at others just mimic add to the confusion. The stage business lacks the score’s sophistication. As do watery, cinemascopic videos: rising liquids, sometimes faux psychedelic, sometimes bloody wisps, always vague.

The talent’s certainly there. Tony Award-winner (Next to Normal) Alice Ripley commands the stage with ease, though at times she can overpower a song. Tony Award-winner (Billy Elliot) Gregory Jbara takes a more subtle tack, always to savvy effect (in particular “All I Think About Is You”), and local favorite Kurt Norby lends the show his elegant tenor.

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