"Copperfield," which opened last night at the ANTA, may just be the first fully-computerized musical. It is as if Dickens had been fed to a machine, buttons pressed, and out came book, songs, scenic and costume designs, and a batch of mechanical performances.
Aside from the customary amplification, which makes almost everybody on Broadway sound funny, a false note is struck by the performance as a whole, as if the actors were mindlessly running through parts they'd been doing for a year or more and were sick and tired of it by now.
This is because the evening (or Wednesday matinee press preview, in my case) is relentlessly on the go, as though a moment's pause, with no shifting scenery or moving actors, would cause the entire flimsy edifice to collapse. Under the busy and undistinguished staging of Rob Iscove, who is also responsible for the commonplace dance routines, everything is done in broad strokes. Smiles, frowns, strides, "takes" - all are so much larger than life and so simplified as to make the actors resemble animated cartoon figures.
And this, in turn, has obviously resulted from the puerile book-and-song reduction of "David Copperfield" by the team of Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn. Trying to crowd as much as possible into a couple of hours or more has resulted in a succession of flats and furniture sliding on and off before huge backcloths modeled on Constable landscapes, these scenes capped at the end of the first act by a colorful merry-go-round fair scene, and at the finish by a London dock scene with a glimpse of ship's rigging.
And all of this busyness turns on the bland songs (a pretty but quickly forgettable "Circle Waltz," a love ballad called "I Wish He Knew," a bustling "Lights of London" routine, and so on) with rhymes that, when they are not discouragingly predictable, as in most instances, are merely silly ("Here's a book in Latin/It's the tongue to chat in').
The show is as harmless as a vanilla milk shake, and it may even appeal to children. It seemed to that afternoon when busloads of kids poured into the house, not helping to fill it, by any means, but whooping it up at dramatic moments in the unfolding of David's career with its abruptly shifting fortunes. Take, for example, that moment when the boy David having disappeared behind a tableful of books, the handsome young man David smilingly rises from behind them. And there are several other moppet stimulants, particularly when Uriah Heep and Mr. Murdstone are engaged in their dirty work. But maybe those kids where programmed, too!
Speaking of Uriah Heep, a red-crested and spidery Barrie Ingham in black knee breeches kicks "Copperfield" into a semblance of life during his "umble" and villainous scenes and songs. He does so because, unlike all the others with the exception of Michael Connolly as the unbearably stern Murdstone, he is immersed in his part and brings a childlike conviction to it.
I was pleased no end to leave the faintly obnoxious boy David (Evan Richard) behind late in the first half; for, besides good looks, the grown-up hero (Brian Matthews) possesses a pleasing singing voice. Mary Mastrantonio adorns the role of dumb Dora, David's young bride who conveniently expires, leaving the field clear for dear loyal Agnes, a part in which Leslie Denniston is equally decorative. George S. Irving's Micawber, Carmen Mathews' Aunt Betsey and Mary Stout's Peggotty are among the more boldly-drawn characters in the large cast of this restless show.
Tony Straiges' scenery, opulent-looking and at the same time smoothly functional, suits the story of "David Copperfield" very well, and I could find no fault with either John David Ridge's period costumes (the pastels for the fair scene create a lovely effect) nor Ken Billington's artful lighting. Irwin Kostal's orchestrations, conducted by Larry Blank, often make the score sound better than it is.
"Copperfield" just barely qualifies as live theater. Push another button.
Is amiability sufficient in a Broadway musical? There is a great deal of amiability in the Dickensian musical Copperfield, which opened at the ANTA Theater last night.
The narrative, although ammended and abridged, is faithful enough to Dickens, and its story of a young man's rise to happiness, obviously partly autobiographical, has charms enough.
Yet, interestingly perhaps, although the novel was reputedly the author's favorite, it has less obvious drama than the two most celebrated Dickensian adaptions, Lionel Bart's musical Oliver! and, still to be seen in New York, last year's sensational staging by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Nicholas Nickelby.
By contrast, David Copperfield is almost quiet, even domesticated. It has some wonderful characters, and its mood of optimism - personified in the sublimity of Mr. Micawber - is sunny and untroubled.
What the musical lacks is a really strong score, and, in its book, a greater sense of compulsion. Book, music and lyrics have all been supplied by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschorn, an unusual joint arrangement that ideally should have provided more homogeneity than it does here.
The music is bland. It has a sort of desperate unmemorability to it that goes in one ear and out the other without leaving a trace of anything more substantial than a pleasant warmth. Even more dangerously, the book has not been dramatically shaped.
Yet the evening remains a pleasant experience, even diverting in its Dickensian charm, which will always be beguiling. The show also has been well-staged, with a certain lavishness, or at least imagination that this kind of narrative enterprise demands.
The scenery by Tony Straiges and the costumes by John David Ridge have the right tone to them, and the direction and choreography by Rob Iscove are persuasive and to the point. I was particularly impressed at the opportunities he took for dancing and how neatly it was dovetailed and integrated into the stage action.
There are two outstanding performances here - Barrie Ingham, in a ginger, frightwig and leering obsequiously as Uriah Heep, and George S. Irving, majestically avuncular as Mr. Micawber. These portraits are Dickensian in stature and manner, as is Carmen Mathews as the indomitable Betsy Trotwood.
Dickens' young lovers are quite frequently insufferable on paper, and are rarely any better on stage or screen. Here in the various person of Brian Matthews (a good looking but somewhat stiff Copperfield), Leslie Denniston and Mary Mastrantonio, they emerge with more affability than intensity.
Two last points. I saw the show at the Wednesday matinee, which was full of children who were clearly having a good time. This could be one of those much sought after but rarely found, family shows. Secondly, I very much enjoyed the exuberant curtain calls.
Yet all in all, and regretfully, it seems to me that Copperfield lacks the forcefulness and the buoyancy that makes for a copper-bottomed Broadway musical.
After sitting through ''Copperfield,'' the new musical at the ANTA, you may seriously question whether its creators have ever actually read their ostensible source material, Charles Dickens's ''David Copperfield.'' You may even question whether they've read the Classics Comics version. But there's one thing you won't question. Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, who wrote this show's book, music and lyrics, have definitely, but definitely, seen lots of hit Broadway musicals.
''Copperfield'' seems an almost scientific attempt to recreate, by slavish imitation, some of those familiar shows. The experiment proves a total failure - there are still a few frontiers that even science can't conquer - but ''Copperfield'' is hard to beat for sheer deja vu. This is the kind of musical that sends you out of the theater humming every score other than the one you've just heard.
It's no surprise that the Messrs. Kasha and Hirschhorn seem to have a special fondness for ''Oliver!,'' Lionel Bart's 1962 adaptation of ''Oliver Twist.'' There are at least three songs in ''Copperfield'' that are built around the same concepts (and even placed in roughly the same positions) as Mr. Bart's precursors. One of these songs is so close to ''Where Is Love?'' as to be embarrassing. Sings the young David, most plaintively: ''Is there anyone who/is waiting to say I want you?''
Then there's ''Annie.'' Someone connected with ''Copperfield'' seems to have studied David Mitchell's wonderful scenery for that hit. Mr. Wickfield's sitting room in the new show, designed by Tony Straiges, looks like a cheap knock-off of Daddy Warbucks's. Here, too, there is a treadmill to send tableaux of chorus people across the stage. You may also notice that the Uriah Heep of ''Copperfield'' more closely resembles the villainous Miss Hannigan of ''Annie'' than the character that Dickens created.
One could go on forever: ''Copperfield'' even contains a comedy number, ''Mama, Don't Get Married,'' that none too cleverly inverts ''If Momma Was Married'' from ''Gypsy.'' But don't think that this kind of project is as simple as it looks: some real creative decisions are involved. Take, for instance, the matter of naming the show. ''Oliver!'' has an exclamation point at the end of its title, ''Annie'' does not, and so what is one to do? It takes more than a few sleepless nights to resolve esthetic questions like that.
Of course, derivativeness is nothing new in Broadway musicals that aspire to be pure commercial entertainments. The real problem with ''Copperfield'' is that its authors are not good mimics. From the music to the scenery to the cast, everything about this show looks tacky in comparison to its prototypes. And when the writers actually attempt to come up with fresh ideas - well, look out!
The show's book manages to miss the human comedy, the tears and even the point of Dickens's novel. This ''Copperfield'' is no longer the story of a boy's hard-won growth to emotional manhood, but a clunky, often incoherently told melodrama in which all the villains literally wear black. Many of the memorable characters from the original - from Steerforth to Little Emily to the Creakles - are gone. Those that do remain might just as well have been discarded. Peggotty (Mary Stout) now exists only to announce a death in each act. Aunt Betsey Trotwood (Carmen Mathews) has been reduced to a running gag. Even the title character seems an almost peripheral figure in the proceedings. He's played by two decent singers - one boy, one man - who are nothing if not chips off the same block. The block is made of wood.
One expects better from the score, if only because the authors have won two Academy Awards - for their theme songs from ''The Poseidon Adventure'' and ''The Towering Inferno.'' (What? You don't remember them?) Some of the music is mildly tuneful, after its many fashions, but the lyrics are, at best, unintentionally funny. In one typical number, in which David learns the joys of reading, we get the couplet ''Every book will be a treasure/More than you can ever measure.'' From there, it's only a tiny step to the unforgettable ''You will find that Latin/Is the tongue to chat in.''
Rob Iscove's choreography departs from the show's norm, in that it seems to have been culled from flops rather than hits. Except for a banal waltz finale to Act I and an equally banal wedding celebration in Act II, the dances all take place in a narrow band of space at the front of the stage. Perhaps that's why most of the numbers consist of dancers kicking and wiggling sideways.
The cast is less than the best that money can buy, but a few performers stand out from the scenery and the busy, colorless chorus people. George S. Irving, that indefatigable pro, works very hard as Micawber, ending up with a character who is indistinguishable from the buffoon he played in ''I Remember Mama.'' Leslie Denniston's almost nonexistent Agnes has the most human-seeming voice and manner. Barrie Ingham's Uriah, who looks like an attenuated porcupine with red quills, makes the most of his inevitable song ('''Umble'') and gets the evening's two laughs. One could picture him being quite jolly in a Christmas pantomime at the London Palladium.
Yes, it could be argued that ''Copperfield'' might be entertaining for young children, whose innocent minds aren't sullied by memories of the superior shows that this one dimly recalls. But it's hard to imagine what parent -short of an evil Dickensian one - would take the family to the ANTA when ''Annie,'' ''Barnum'' and ''The Pirates of Penzance'' are in town. As for those New York kids who have already seen those other shows, they'd probably be better off staying at home with a good book. Might I suggest ''David Copperfield''?