We got "Herman van Veen: All of Him" last night at the Ambassador, and it was way too much. The Dutch entertainer, here for two weeks, makes versatility seem like a curse.
At 37, he is, according to the program, a European favorite: singer, violinist, mime, composer, poet, children's book author, playwright, essayist, clown, movie and TV director, and a producer of records, films, TV shows and books. Bustling about the stage for a couple of hours (with a long intermission), he seems to be trying to make up his mind whether he's Jacques Brel, Marcel Marceau, an acrobat, a circus clown, Victor Borge (having fun with the piano, he shows a preference, though with comic intent, for tone clusters calling to mind the late Henry Cowell), or the fiddler on the roof.
Wearing a basic white costume (loose short-sleeved, open-neck shirt, slacks and sneakers), he sings sad and comic songs, mainly in English but with an occasional chorus in the original Dutch, makes believe he's a parade or people rushing about in a railroad station, plays the violin deftly a couple of times, scales a 10-foot wire fence that runs across the back of the stage, pretends it's a cage while he's behind it, and indulges in a good deal of silly, meaningless behavior seemingly built on free association but probably well-rehearsed. Did I leave out Maurice Chevalier? Well, he does a turn in French, cap pitched forward on head, before sitting down to the piano.
Several of the songs, which he sings pleasantly enough and for which he has written most of the music, have lyrics couched in those petty profundities so dear to European cabaret singers (and, indeed, this is primarily a cabaret vaudeville show), and that have been driven home in this country only by a very few consummate cafe performers. The influence of Brel is strong.
A compact, balding man with middling-long hair hanging from the sides and back of his head, this jack-of-all-trades manipulates his body with great ease and to create a variety of effects, but he never manages to create a clear character of his own, a stage personality that would tie the strands together, assuming that this were possible, anyway, since he flies off in so many different directions. His backup trio is quite good.
I just remembered: he doesn't juggle. Though he does pretend to swallow or disgorge a ping pong ball that he pretends is a golf ball that he pretends is the planet earth. Far out? I'd say so.
The streets of Amsterdam are made of water, the bicycles are oiled with rain. You sit at cafe tables covered with carpets and drink an aromatic, pungent potion they think is gin.
Amsterdam, which I love, is an acquired taste. So, I imagine, is Herman van Veen, who opened his one-man show with musicians at the Ambassador Theater last night. And Van Veen was not even born in Amsterdam. He hails from Utrecht.
His show is called Herman van Veen: All of Him. All of him might be too much, and at times it is too little. He is very Dutch. With his seawater eyes, angular bones and martyr-face of ribald protest, he even looks like a minor character from a whole gallery of Dutch and Flemish old masters.
He is a comedian and musician, singer and violinist. He mimes. He rides a bicycle. When at a loss for a grimace he climbs a wall. He starts out as a Dutch Rip Taylor - showering his audience with Indonesian rice - and ends, or nearly ends, as a French Victor Borge.
He reminds you of others in other places at other times. Jacques Brel, of course. Van Veen is rather less civilized, but if you are Flemish you have to be civilized, while if you are Dutch you can stay Dutch.
He has something in common with Harry Chapin. His songs tell ordinary stories of ordinary people - the wasted housewife, or the male prostitute on the street corner waiting to service the next gay Mercedes cruising by.
But Chapin had more point. Van Veen has more substance than focus. He gets lost in his own rhetoric. His points - losing something in translation perhaps? - are all too simplistic. His messages run riot with mottoes.
When he tells us - at length - that "Cowards live because they're clever, heroes die, but live forever" you wonder what he has done to his mind, or at least where he has left it.
This is the strangeness of Van Veen - a cult figure in Holland and popular throughout Europe. He is prankishly inconsistent. He can be mawkishly sentimental one minute, or sickeningly manipulative, then suddenly his face will wipe off that moment and he will become a caged, ferocious tiger.
The humor is schoolboyish and physical. With his blond, balding hair, framing a cherubically wicked face, he can flail around the stage like a Peter Sellers trying to imitate a Jacques Tati. He is nothing if not subtly obvious, except when he is obviously subtle. Yet his timing is immaculate. He is a remarkable, if singular, musician, and is backed up by a superb band. He is a violinist and pianist, and he has a particular genius for making percussive music out of, say, the skin of a double bass, or the frame of a piano. He gets grotesque fun from a spastic tap dance, or singing gibberish scat.
He can be childlike - in doing comic walks across the stage, for instance, or miming a traffic catastrophe his audience is expected to find amusing, as opposed to an atomic holocaust.
He can be sophisticated. Witness his terrific virtuosity in playing the piano with his backside while producing a credible parody of Stravinsky's Les Noces.
For Broadway he needs far less freedom than he allows himself at present. Van Veen wanders all over the lot, cheerfully believing that his very presence is the justification of entertainment. It isn't. There are long longeurs - not helped by his nervily smug self-assurance.
Less of Van Veen would be more - but when he is good he can be tremendous. His director and collaborator, Michael Lafaille, needs a firmer hand. It would give us a stronger show.
The title does not lie. ''Herman van Veen: All of Him'' is the name of the one-man show that opened on Broadway last night, and all of Herman van Veen is what you get. You get his singing, his mime, his dancing, his jokes, his politics, his fiddle playing. And it doesn't take too long to discover that this is way too much of a poor thing.
According to the Playbill handed out at the Ambassador Theater, the Dutch-born Mr. van Veen is ''one of Europe's most renowned musical theater performers.'' A spindly man of 37 whose long sad face and bald dome are fringed by long blond curls, he looks like Len Cariou in the final stages of ''Sweeney Todd.'' He's just about as cheery. He sings of suicide and the mental asylum, of lonely and shattered lives, of transactions with homosexual prostitutes. Comic relief, which is scant, comes in the form of Danny Kaye-like sketches featuring authoritarian orchestra conductors and multilingual doubletalk.
This performer sucessfully simulates Mr. Kaye in one worthwhile way: he does good works for UNICEF in private life. That's scant compensation, however, for an audience that must endure Mr. van Veen's mirthless mugging. As a singer, he sounds like Charles Aznavour's understudy; as a mime, he's about four levels below Bill Irwin. His songs, by a variety of authors and here outfitted with English lyrics by Christopher Adler, are alternately in the Jacques Brel and Yves Montand modes. They tend to sound the same and are not enlivened by either Michel Lafaille's leaden direction or the disconsolate playing of a three-man on-stage combo.
Along the way, Mr. van Veen does champion some worthy causes. He's in favor of peace and the preservation of baby seals; he's against unemployment. He quotes one of his own children in making a strong plea for togetherness. But the dour, maudlin tone of this incessant preaching becomes grating after a while. One is terribly grateful that the United States Constitution forbids Mr. van Veen from seeking public office in New York.
The show also offers a dim semblance of performance art. Philip Glass's name is dropped, and there's a lot of hokey business involving the minimal set (a chain-link fence and hanging moon), loud apocalyptic sound effects, and the slow dropping of the house curtain. Late in the evening, the star spits - and I do mean spits - on the first few rows of spectators and takes to banging on the piano with his rear end. At that point Herman van Veen ceases to be merely what one might call a Renaissance mediocrity: he has achieved the stature of a world-class boor.