By Ron Fassler
When it first opened on November 22, 1945, Lewis Nichols wrote in his New York Times review that The Day Before Spring was “a likable musical show in a good many ways, if not in quite enough of them for a fully satisfactory evening.” Over 74 years later, having seen a concert version by the York Theatre’s “Musical in Mufti” series yesterday afternoon, I can pretty much attest to the same thing. The second of three shows to be produced in a salute to the lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner, it made for an interesting choice. The Day Before Spring has never been professionally recorded (at least to my knowledge), so here was a chance to hear some early Lerner & Loewe. Having lasted all of 167 performances (respectable for 1945, but certainly not long enough to return its investors their money back), it’s receded into being a mere glitch along the path to greatness for this renowned team, which followed up with Brigadoon a year and four months later, then Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, Gigi (on film) and Camelot, over a thirteen-year span.
In fact, this is not the first time that Musicals in Mufti has presented The Day Before Spring. A 2007 production was put together with the kind of detective work that is often necessary for shows not preserved as carefully as others. This time, in an admirable effort to reinvent it yet again, this production’s director, Marc Acito, took it upon himself to abridge the original book, transforming the musical into an intermission-less, 90-minute one-act. Having never seen it in a longer version, I’m not sure it helped that much, in the sense that it awkwardly jerks from scene to scene, never quite having the courage of its convictions. The oft-married Lerner (eight times), seems even this early in his matrimonial career to have a LOT of not very charming things to say about marriage, would then like us to believe by the end of the play that “love conquers all.” The main characters, who have come together for a ten-year college reunion, revisit past loves, lost hopes and dreams, and carry on immaturely. None of it is terribly convincing, and the songs, though some lovely, and one or two clever enough, never successfully lift the show out of the doldrums.
I was hoping the show was off to a good start when the lushness of Frederick Loewe’s title tune washed over me. Even with just a trio of musicians on piano, bass and drums, there was no denying a certain spellbinding power of the song (especially as beautifully sung by the effervescent Madison Claire Parks). Sadly, that feeling dissipated over time, as it was reprised more than once, deluding the effect. And Lerner’s underlying cynicism makes most of the characters not very appealing to spend an evening with.
That only extends so far as the writing, as the actors—with a mere thirty hours of rehearsal—were happily engaging to watch. On little to no budget, they had only their personal persuasiveness, backed up by strong and confident singing, to sell the material and make do with what they were given. So kudos to them all, especially the six leading players, Will Reynolds, Michelle Liu Coughlin, Nicolas Dromard (the aforementioned Madison Claire Parks) and Alyse Alan Louis, who was given a chance to shine with the solo “My Love is a Married Man.” Its comedy styling gave a sampler of what was to come as Lerner grew more sophisticated over time, culminating in his brilliant adaptation of Shaw, bringing Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle to expressive singing life in My Fair Lady. We also get a glimpse into some future songwriting by Loewe, since he recycled a part of The Day Before Spring’s “Where’s My Wife?” for the title song to Gigi. Little did anyone know when he and Lerner took to the podium in 1959 to collect their Academy Award for Best song, that a portion of it had been lifted from their obscure Broadway outing more than a dozen years earlier.
Photos: Ben Strothman
The Day Before Spring runs through February 17th at the Theatre at St. Peter’s, Lexington Avenue and 54th Street, with Lolita, My Love, Lerner’s 1971 adaptation of Nabokov’s infamous novel (music by John Barry), the third and last part of the York’s Lerner Salute, February 23-March 3 www.YorkTheatre.org