"Fearless Frank," the new musical at the Princess Theater, is one of life's more underwhelming experiences. Based on the autobiography of Frank Harris, this farrago of supposedly titillating revelations about Harris is singularly uninspired, inept and, worst of all, unentertaining. By the end of the first act, raging tedium had so enfeebled the eyelids that intermission came upon us with a start.
Now, Harris' life would seem a natural for the stage. One can almose see Andrew Davies (book and lyrics) and Dave Brown (music) rubbing their hands in anticipation. Harris, a British writer, editor and critic of the Victorian era, was a self-celebrated lecher as well as a champion of such then-unknowns as Shaw and Wilde. What more can one ask? Sex and the famous is a difficult combination to beat.
But Davies and Brown have mucked it up with lyrics and music which, while occasionally clever, seem sophomoric, undistinguished and even derivative. At one point, Niall Toibin as Harris and Evalyn Baron as one of his wives do a turn on "Oh, Mr. Harris, You're a Naughty, Naughty Man" that sounds as if it were lifted from the classic Gallagher and Sheean vaudeville act.
Further, Harris' autobiography reveals him to be a vibrant flesh-and-blood creature with an incisive intellect forged from a sweeping range of reading and experience. He was, if nothing else, a very interesting man. Davies and Brown have reduced him to a pallid, one-dimensional, cardboard cut-out of an inveterate skirt-chaser.
In a nod toward Harris' acquaintance with the literati, they run figures such as Wilde, deMaupassant and Carlyle on and off with vexing speed and even then the dialogue remains rooted in the sexual. Sex is great but at least presented with some charm, wit, heat or eroticism, none of which are present here. The sexual palaver is like a man with no tatse buds describing his dinner at Maxim's.
Toibin, who elsewhere has proved he is a fine actor, walks through his role as if he knew the whole undertaking was hopeless, so why try? His primary expression, usually often while caressing some woman's bottom, is a leer at the audience accompanied by a left eyebrow that is arched as if awaiting the imminent arrival of a monocle. Only Baron, who was so good in Off Broadway's "Scrambled Feet," brings any life into this curiously impersonal enterprise, although Carrie Robbins' costumes are a colorful delight. "Fearless Frank" runs two hours, and it is two hours too long.
Frank Harris, that odd hero of London's Cafe Royal Society at the turn of the century, has always seemed to be one of literature's more endearing scalliwags. He claimed that his entire life was a work of art, and from his early days in England, America, literary London, and his final exile in Nice, he played the various roles of literateur, lover and buffoon to the hilt.
Last night at the Princess Theater there opened an English musical about Harris, his life and loves, called Fearless Frank, and being neither particularly fearless, frank nor even interesting, it appears to do its subject something of an injustice.
Despite the Broadway-operetta successes of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the musical is scarcely a genre in which the English excel. Fearless Frank is unlikely to convert many people to any contrary proposition. It takes a fascinating rogue and makes a bore out of him.
The show originated at the usually feisty London fringe theater, the King's Head Theater Club, and as a small-scale cabaret style evening it might have had some primitive virtues, but one doubts it.
Probably the major flaw in the show is the thin, watery music by Dave Brown which trickles out during the evening with the consistency of gruel.
The book and lyrics by Andrew Davies are hardly any better. The lyrics, which contain such infelicities as Harris plagiarizing Wilde, and Carlyle plagiarizing Burns, appear to be absolutely worthy of Brown's bleakly beige music.
Davies's stock-in-trade here is sly innuendo, which demonstrates that to be discreetly dirty, in a schoolboyish, or at best sophomoric, fashion, is not necessarily to be witty or even clever. There is nothing at all wrong with bad taste so long as it has good taste to back it up. The book, a mere recital of Harris's ups and downs, proves inessentially repetitious.
Robert Gillespie's uninventive direction is probably just what the musical deserved, and while the choreography by Michael Vernon is almost invisible in its tactfulness, the scenery by Martin Tilley is mildly pretty and the costumes "supervised" (whatever that means) by Carrie T. Robbins prove cheerfully apt.
The main virtue of the show, glinting like a white life-belt in a murky sea of troubles, is the dapper performance by Nial Toibin as a Harris's Harris. With his unswept mustaches, his eyes glinting and glittering with lechery, the man is a model of concupiscence combined with cupidity.
He is scarcely the greatest singer in the world - the score did not actually demand a Pavarotti - but he has a way with a song, and his good-natured but properly outrageous jauntiness was never less than attractive, and, in the circumstances surrounding him, often positively gallant. The other three men, Olivier Pierre, Alex Wipf and Steve Burney, were uniformly awful, but this could have been the fault of a director probably better suited to directing traffic rather than plays.
Two of the actresses, Ann Hodapp and Valerie Mahaffey, were similarly allowed to merge in with the scenery, but Evalyn Baron amused as an assortment of older women in Harris's life and Kristen Meadows looked uncommonly sexy as an assortment of the younger.
Fearless Frank may have had its pallid charms in London - although even there it was scarcely a huge hit - but to export to Broadway seems like an essay in folly.
"Fearless Frank" is just about enough to break your heart. This British musical has a uniformly ingratiating cast and one of the wittiest librettos of the season. Its title character, the literary scoundrel Frank Harris, is a fount of devilish fun, and he is perfectly embodied by the sly Irish actor Niall Toibin. But if the show at the Princess Theater is always pleasant, literate and sweet, it never for a second catches fire. "Fearless Frank" lacks the one intangible ingredient that separates successful musical comedies from the also-rans - showbiz know-how.
Such know-how consists mainly of hard, detailed work. In a musical, a lot of diverse components must somehow be assembled into a seamless theatrical organism. Unless each fine point of the production, from the first orchestral downbeat to the final blackout, is precisely tuned, the show remains earthbound. This precision is completely missing in "Fearless Frank," as it is in many British musicals. For some inexplicable reason, English theater people, who are so smart about everything else, often come to grief when trying to assemble effective song-and-dance shows. Though British musicals can succeed here, it sometimes takes a Broadway hand to stir the raw materials into an incendiary mix. It's not happenstance that such current London-bred hits as "A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine" and "Evita" have been staged, respectively, by Tommy Tune and Hal Prince.
In its general ambience, "Fearless Frank" is of the "Hollywood/Ukraine" school. It's an intimate show, with a cast of eight, that seeks to recreate the notorious lives and loves of an eccentric and delightful man. When we meet him in 1921, Frank Harris is old, broke, impotent and exiled in Nice. But as he dictates his memoirs, his extraordinary youthful exploits come into focus. Is there anything that Frank Harris didn't do? Born in Ireland, he eventually worked as a cowboy in the American West, picked up a law degree at the University of Kansas, and then returned to Europe to become one of the most far-sighted editors of Edwardian England. He knew everyone worth knowing - Whistler, de Maupassant, Wilde, Shaw, Beerbohm - and slept with every woman he could find. A wild combination of Gertrude Stein, Don Juan and Citizen Kane, Harris is now best known for his once-banned, somewhat fictionalized memoir. "Fearless Frank" makes the case that this literary man's life itself was his greatest work of art.
The story is told in a series of sprightly music-hall vignettes that have been cleverly written by Andrew Davies. One minute we are watching the hero read Carlyle, book in hand, as he rides the range on a horse; the next we see him railing against his creditors in Nice. At the center of every scene is Mr. Toibin, who, like the man he plays, is a short, somewhat squat tiger with a rakish mustache and impish eyes. This actor has a talent for making even Harris's most vulgar adventures seem benign. When he describes the joys of looking up girls' skirts in boarding school or discourses on the uses of flattery in sexual conquest, there is no leering or hypocrisy about him. Like Maurice Chevalier in "Gigi," he charms us into accepting the outmoded mores and attitudes of a festive, extinct world.
The other members of the company fill out the many supporting roles well. Olivier Pierre, a rotund young comedian, is equally adept at portraying a slow-witted cowboy in Act I and a sex-crazed de Maupassant in Act II. Among the women, there are two stand-outs. Evalyn Baron, last seen chasing a duck in "Scrambled Feet," is beginning to look like a latter-day Betty Comden: She brings just the right air of exaggerated comic haughtiness to the more mature women among Harris's conquests. As the hero's younger, more innocent victims, the beautiful but demure Valerie Mahaffey poises at the brink of voluptuousness without ever going over the line: She is reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn before Fred Astaire makes her over in "Funny Face."
Yet, with the possible exception of Miss Baron, none of these performers is particularly adept at singing and dancing. They put across every one of Mr. Davies's intricate and at times wicked lyrics, but Dave Brown's music and Michael Vernon's musical staging remain unexplored and usually lifeless. This letdown is indicative of everything else that goes wrong with the production, Robert Gillespie's direction is busy rather than sharp; the set is drab, the lighting is imprecise, and the orchestrations are as bland as tea party music. It's the saddest kind of waste. Though there's a lively show somewhere in "Fearless Frank," we wait expectantly but in vain for it to leap off the stage.