Despite a resourceful performance in the leading role - make that roles, for one mustn't underestimate the appeal of a performing mouse - "Charlie and Algernon," last night's musical at the Hayes, is a hapless affair. How could it be otherwise? To one unfamiliar with either the book or subsequent movie, the story, especially as set to music, both trivializes and sentimentalizes the subject of mental retardation. It is, oddly, a work that while taking unfair advantage of our emotions, fails to move us.
The story, which I'm sure is familiar to many of you, concerns a young man, Charlie, with an I.Q. of 68, who achieves incredible mental powers through a brain operation (first tried on a mouse, Algernon) only to regress to his earlier state at the conclusion. In between, he's found love, literature (among the latter, "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," of all works), and a fatal flaw (the mouse dies) in his surgeons' theories, and, before he is once more a "dummy," an insight into a possible solution to the problem.
That's a heavy burden - one comparable, say, to making a song-and-dance show out of "The Elephant Man" - for any musical, even an intimate and "very special" one as this is dubbed, to bear. And particularly one with a score, Charles Strouse's, and lyrics, David Rogers', lacking in bite. Though I imagine that even the team of Brecht and Weill would have thrown up their hands upon being presented with such a story.
The high spots of the evening, which has no intermission, are a fleet and melodious song-and-dance love duet ("Now") by the brainy Charlie and his lissome teacher Alice, who are now living together, followed by another song-and-dance routine by the still advanced Charlie and a white mouse, Algernon. The remainder consists largely of dollops of scientific jargon mouthed by the two surgeons and Charlie amid repeated references to the surgeons', and indeed the world's, indifference to the souls of both man and mouse.
For humor, there is the wisdom of the simpleton faced with scientific method (in a Rorschach test, Charlie discerns only ink blots).
There are other "special" aspects of this "very special musical": Charlie came from a perfectly good home, but was dumped on an orphanage by his mother out of concern for his normal sister, and the woman owner of the bakery where the moronic Charlie was contentedly employed as sweeper turns him away when he gets too smart for her and the other help's good.
Rogers' book and undistinguished lyrics deal uneasily with all this material, as you might expect; and Strouse's score, though professional, rhythmically varied (he even gets in some soft rock in Philip J. Lang's expert arrangements) and pleasingly melodic now and then, reduces the heavy subject to bathos.
P. J. Benjamin is a winning Charlie, on the whole, most at ease as the smartly attired genius-lover who sings and dances skillfully and acts acceptably, as well. He is less successful as the hunched-over, grinning moron, and I'm afraid we spend a good part of the evening painfully waiting for his regression scene. Sandy Faison gives an attractive performance in the limited and somewhat contradictory, as well as unconvincing, part of the teacher who reluctantly accepts her former pupil as her lover and slips unhappily away, at his will, when his Hyde-side begins to reemerge.
Edward Earle and Robert Sevra are, through no fault of theirs, almost comic figures as the scientific explorers with their charts, mazes and trade mumbo jumbo. Nancy Franklin plays the bake-shop owner effectively, and Loida Santos and Patrick Jude, bakery employees, have one sizzling dance routine. Julienne Marie, returning to the stage after a long absence, manages to create a distinct figure as the mother of the boy Charlie, the latter played by Matthew Duda.
Louis W. Scheeder has directed the book straightforwardly, and Virginia Freeman's dances achieve sparkle. But Kate Edmunds' skeletal scenery, Jess Goldstein's costumes and Hugh Lester's bold lighting all tend, perhaps unavoidably, to emphasize the clinical nature of this would-be entertainment. Interestingly, William H. Clements' sound system is the most subtle and unobtrusive encountered in a musical as far back as one can recall, though the fact that the modest-sized Hayes is not a musical house inevitably demanded restraint.
Except for those moments mentioned, one regards "Charlie and Algernon" much as one might look at a laboratory specimen, and an imperfect one at that.
The musically enchanting Charlie and Algernon, which opened last night at the Helen Hayes, is its own worst enemy. Okay, so this is going to be a mixed notice, but it is a fascinating mixture.
Charlie and Algernon is more of a musical play than anything else. The producers call it, whether with pride or admonition one doesn't know, "A Very Special Musical." In fairness, with its emphasis on dramatic values, this is something new in the genre.
It is a chamber musical - there is no chorus or production numbers - about a retarded youth, Charlie, and a white mouse. It is based on a novel by Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon, which was later made into the movie Charly.
Charlie is a good-natured, retarded adult, who with the help of friends at the bakery where he works, and the assistance of a teacher, more or less functions. One day it seems that a pair of scientists have achieved a major breakthrough in brain surgery. With an operation on the brain of a white mouse they have been able to increase its brain power, measured it seems merely by its skill in negotiating complicated mazes most remarkably.
Now all they need is a suitable human to experiment on - and along comes Charlie. Now this is simplistic clap-trap - we do not for one moment believe such surgery to be possible, we do not believe that the scientists would move directly from white mice to humans, nor can we believe in the results of the experiment, which has Charlie, like Algernon, developing genius-quality brains, until they finally regress to their original states.
This is what I meant about the show being its own worst enemy. In Oklahoma!, no one feels inclined to measure the corn to see if it really is the height of an elephant's eye. In most musicals we will accept a good deal on trust.
But Charlie and Algernon is presented as a straightforward drama with music, realistic in its pose and proposition. On those self-imposed terms it emerges as totally implausible and mawkishly sentimental.
Clearly David Rogers, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Charles Strouse, who composed the score believe in the show. Last year, under the title Flowers for Algernon and starring Michael Crawford, it was briefly in London's West End, and this present production was first tried out earlier in the year in Washington, D.C.
The strength of the show is to be found, as it was in London, in Strouse's beautifully melodic score and in Rogers' syrupy but catchy lyrics. There is also one novelty dance of triumphant flamboyance - a duet for man and mouse no less - between song and drama and maintains a good pace. Here he was helped by the simple, sliding scenery of Kate Edmunds, and the reasonably under-stressed choreography by Virginia Freeman.
For a Broadway show I thought it was slightly under-cast. P.J. Benjamin certainly acts with great force and conviction as Charlie on his journey from near-vegetable and back, but he lacked the charismatic presence that Crawford brought to the London version. As the school teacher who eventually falls in love with Charlie, Sandy Faison proved most touching, squeezing every ounce of genuine sentiment out of her role's prevailing sentimentality.
Yet at the end, despite these two performances, despite the pretty tunes and glossy theatricality, indeed for all its merits, I could not suspend my disbelief, or my sense that my feelings were being manipulated rather than aroused.
"Charlie and Algernon," which opened at the Helen Hayes last night, bills itself as "a very special musical." That's probably as good a way as any to describe a show whose premise springs from science fiction and whose title characters are a retarded man and a sprightly white mouse. Then again, "Charlie and Algernon" is special only up to a point. Though this musical boasts unusual heroes and enough philosophical truisms to fill a dozen fortune cookies, it is a very ordinary and at times very irritating entertainment.
The evening's source material is "Flowers for Algernon," the Daniel Keyes novel that also served as the basis for the 1968 movie "Charly." It's a fable about a pair of scientists who invent a psychosurgical technique for transforming idiots into geniuses. Having successfully upgraded the I.Q. of their laboratory mouse - that's Algernon - the ambitious doctors operate on Charlie, a brain-damaged bakery worker, to prove that their magic can also benefit humankind. But, needless to say, there are some things that man wasn't meant to tamper with. While the new, improved Charlie can read "War and Peace" in one night, his brains can't compensate for years of social maladjustment. Once the doctors' experiment begins to falter, Charlie is almost glad to regress to his original simple-minded state.
There's nothing wrong with this sentimental little tale, predictable though it may be, but there is much amiss with the way it is retold in "Charlie and Algernon." David Rogers, author of the musical's book and lyrics, is more than eager to spell out his story's less-than-controversial messages. Over and over, he reminds us that science is fallible, that intelligence must be tempered with human feeling, that retarded children and mice are God's creatures, too. That's all well and good, but noble sentiments in themselves do not constitute an evening of theater. If they are not attached to well-observed characters, they sound as hollow as the crowd-pleasing bromides of a glib candidate running for public office.
Such is the case with "Charlie and Algernon." As it soon becomes apparent, Mr. Rogers is far more adept at describing humanity in the abstract than in the particular. Almost all the people on stage - Algernon may be an exception - are stereotypes. Charlie (P. J. Benjamin) is relentlessly endearing; his doctors (Edward Earle and Robert Sevra) are cold and ambitious; Charlie's friends and relatives are invariably, if unintentionally, callous. By dramatizing moral platitudes in such totally unsubtle terms, Mr. Rogers exploits his brain-damaged hero for ready-made bathos without ever bringing either his predicament or the story's issues to truly compelling life. The tone of the evening is not so much inspirational as manipulative and smug.
If "Charlie and Algernon" had the grace or pizazz of a first-rate musical, perhaps it would be easier to ignore its simplistic content. Unfortunately, the distractions are few. Though the show contains an unusually large helping of musical numbers - 21 - it often seems more like a play with songs than a truly integrated musical. Many of the crucial plot transitions are accompanied not by the score or the book but by voice-over readings from the hero's journal. There are repetitions and digressions galore, including several unassimilated flashbacks into Charlie's youth and three dispensible numbers involving the ostensibly colorful ethnics who work with Charlie at the bakery shop. Louis W. Scheeder's old-fashioned direction and Virginia Freeman's minimal choreography do not exactly send the evening's fractionalized components into orbit.
The music is by Charles Strouse ("Bye Bye Birdie" and "Applause"), who is one of Broadway's better songwriters. His score for this show, abetted by Philip J. Lang's Michel Legrand-esque orchestrations, is often tuneful but rarely rousing. Part of the problem can be found in Mr. Rogers's lyrics, which, one literary patter song aside, are every bit as prosaic and repetitive as the book. Indeed, there are a number of songs that baldly attempt to repackage the uplift of "Tomorrow" from Mr. Strouse's "Annie." When the composer's characteristically cheerful style comes up against bitter material - such as the young Charlie's banishment to an institution - the musical results are, to say the least, bizarre.
The two best numbers, as it happens, occur back to back late in the show and have little to do with "Charlie and Algnernon's" loftier ideals. In "Now," Mr. Benjamin celebrates his first sexual affair by gliding his teacher-cum-lover (Sandy Faison) through a few breezy steps under a glittering New York skyline. The song's staging and spirit recall "Just in Time" from "Bells Are Ringing," and it is one of the rare occasions when Kate Edmunds's set rises above the drably utilitarian. The title number that follows is a spiffy, flat-out vaudeville turn, complete with follow spot, in which Mr. Benjamin celebrates his fielty to his fellow lab specimen.
These two songs also reveal just how gifted a performer Mr. Benjamin is. And not a moment too soon. This actor's early, pretransformation scenes make one a bit uneasy. When he belts out songs with a mindless grin, he's a little too reminiscent of Jerry Lewis in midtelethon. Once Charlie gains his faculties, the attractive Mr. Benjamin displays a sweet voice and limber charm that are the show's principal assets. Miss Faison, who played Daddy Warbucks's winning secretary in "Annie," doesn't fare nearly as well. She is hamstrung by a wan singing voice and a role that proves a soppy, washed-out equivalent to the magnetic John Rubinstein character in "Children of a Lesser God."
Of course, I'm not forgetting about Algernon. He's a cute little mouse - perhaps too little to be seen from the back of the Helen Hayes - and he does a mean little softshoe. Still, I must confess that even his tragic death, just in time for the final curtain, left me cold. It's not that I don't love to sob in the theater. It's just that "Charlie and Algernon" pays far too cheap a price for its audience's tears.