Doug Henning's bag of tricks is fuller than ever, but it's all smothered in the overdressed, overly elaborate, overproduced musical, titled "Merlin," at the Hellinger.
The show, which will soon be entering its second month of full-priced previews and whose opening has twice been postponed, now isn't officially scheduled to open until Feb. 13, and will continue to be worked on for the next week or more. But it's unlikely to shuck all those costumes, all that dialogue, or all those musical numbers, in spite of some scheduled excisions and changes. In short, it's impossible to imagine it becoming radically different from the splendiferous kiddie show at hand, but we'll just have to wait and see.
Henning, who can't act his way out of a paper bag, as they say, and should never be required to, considering the buoyant exercise of his talent as a master magician, is forced to portray the youthful Merlin in the book hammered out by Richard Levinson and William Link, a creation whose leadenness is matched only by Elmer Bernstein's score, arranged for orchestra by Larry Wilcox with what struck me as being a strong lack of interest. Don Black's lyrics, when they could be heard over the atrocious sound system, sounded worthy of the music.
Henning, of course, comes fully into his own when permitted to ignore his role and concentrate on one of his fascinating tricks, including a delightful new illusion in which he causes a horse and rider (himself) to vanish high in the air stage right and suddenly reappear downstage left. It gets one to guessing, but who wants to know, really?
The story has to do with the wicked queen's efforts to insure the throne for her dopey playboy son, since the king lies on his deathbed. But since we know that the elderly Merlin - he, by the way, both opens and, in another Henning illusion, closes the show - was the once-and-future King Arthur's tutor, the result is never in doubt. In fact, the ending is staged very much like the conclusion of "Camelot," though on a happy note rather than a tragic one.
If Henning is forced to bounce in and out of the nonsensical book (at the finish of his big stunts, he quite naturally steps down to the stage apron, grins that Bugs Bunny grin of his, and takes a modest bow in acknowledgement of the round of applause), Chita Rivera, who can act and can also dance, doesn't fare much better as the queen. All she can do is look malevolent, speak nastily, sing a couple of the worthless songs, and cut a few capers in the undistinguished choreography provided for her. The lovely young ballet dancer, Rebecca Wright, appears to much better advantage in the part of Merlin's helper (what would a magician be without a pretty assistant?), a unicorn named Philomena, with hindquarters bearing not the slightest resemblance to a stag's.
Playing the queen's reluctant son, Prince Fergus, Nathan Lane proves an adroit young comic. There are also acceptable performances by Edmund Lyndeck as the Wizard and Michelle Nicastro as a young thing transformed from a black panther for the purpose of wresting Excalibur from Merlin. The large cast includes a host of dancers who scamper about at intervals in, around and through Robin Wagner's sumptuous scenery while wearing some of Theoni V. Aldredge's fanciful costumes. Tharon Musser has come up with some nifty lighting effects, as well.
But "Merlin" is a show that looks ready-made for Jones Beach, if anyplace. And while "The Magic Show" of several seasons back also had an idiotic book, Henning was allowed to go about his business without fuss and in casual dress.
I would guess the legendary Merlin was himself something of a bore when he wasn't obstinately going backward in time and otherwise doing his thing.
It can hardly come as startling news that "Merlin," reviewed here exactly two weeks ago today, is now - as of last night, and after several postponements - officially "open" at the Hellinger. After all, the musical cum magic show, or vice versa, is already in its third month, has been extensively advertised on TV, and lighted standards announcing its presence sprout from taxi roofs all over town.
So what's new? "Merlin II?" Not by a long shot. Very little has changed since that earlier visit. A somewhat livelier second-act opening number ("Put a Little Magic in Your Life") has been substituted for the previous more painfully descriptive one ("These Are Not the Merriest of Days"). A few of the songs have been dispensed with (a distinct advantage, since they're all inert), and the first rendition of one number (the Wizard's "He Who Knows the Way," belabored thrice, lastly as the closing piece) has been moved from the opening scene of Act One to that of Act Two.
Otherwise, this remains the same overdressed and stultifying showcase for the delightful illusions of the engaging magician Doug Henning, who at happy intervals sneaks out of the mindless book and soggy musical numbers to execute one of his seemingly endless variety of tricks, ranging from the charmingly simple to the dashingly elaborate. Unfortunately for him, though, the star is not an escape artist, and is unable to shuck off entirely the shackles of the story, in which he is forced to flounder about as the youth Merlin, who meets up with the boy Arthur only at the finish when a white-bearded actor suddenly replaces Henning.
Co-star Chita Rivera, constricted most of the time by huge wings - butterfly or bat, take your pick - in her role as the evil Queen who connives to flout Merlin and secure the throne for her dippy son, is at as much of a loss as before, singing a few lifeless songs with grim determination and kicking up her heels in a couple of witless choreographic sequences.
Lending a welcome light touch - and mute throughout, lucky girl! - is the winsome ballet dancer Rebecca Wright who, in the part of Merlin's good fairy of a unicorn, is the embodiment of grace. Henning and his equipage, with that fetching assistant curling about him en pointe a good deal of the time, were all the show we needed. As it is, they're almost buried alive.
If you enjoy seeing a horse and rider disappear before your eyes and then turn up on another part of the stage a few seconds later, then Merlin, which belatedly opened last night at the Mark Hellinger, could well be your kind of a show. As long as you are not the horse.
The curious thing about Merlin, which is expressly devised to showcase the by no means illusory illusionist talents of Doug Henning, is that the worst thing about the show is Henning himself. Curious!
The man is a triple-threat performer - he cannot sing, he cannot dance and he cannot act. All this is compounded by a lack of charisma that by comparison would make a pineapple seem like a stage personality.
The evening's success is also less than enhanced by the ponderous book by Richard Levinson and William Link, and music by Elmer Bernstein and lyrics by Don Black that are so unmemorably banal that they disappear into the furniture. They hardly happen.
Yet none of this means that the show is a failure. As long as audiences are prepared to accept its formidable limitations - after all no one every went to Oh, Calcutta! imagining it was about the Indian Famine - it has a fair chance of survival, and will give much pleasure to many people.
Such folk must be delighted with the prospect of seeing not one but two women sawn in half - and then, for this is sophisticated stuff of its kind - reassembled with different tops and bottoms. They must be thrilled at the spectacle of seeing Henning not only levitate with undue levity, but fly round, quite incredibly, a pillar. It seems impossible. But frankly many of the illusions seem impossible. They seem like, well, magic!
Of course in this day of high technology, video can play games with us that make the special effects available to a stage illusionist seem small beer. Nevertheless the spectacle of real-live solid flesh melting into thin air, to watch a panther be transmogrified into a comely young woman, all this has a special reality on stage. Obviously it's still a trick, but some of the tricks have the dimensions of a miracle.
Why then wrap up these tricks, these illusions, these genius-like conjurings, with a belabored story of the legendary Merlin in his pre-Camelot era (the music is pretty much pre-Camelot as well) learning his craft from an old Magician called The Wizard, and defeating evil forces of a Dragon Lady called simply The Queen, in her efforts to place her foolish and reluctant son, Prince Fergus, on the throne of England in place of that once and only King, young Arthur?
The germ, the kernel, the heart of Merlin is to be found in its stage tricks. Now the question must be asked, why not simply perform the tricks as an evening of Magic and Illusion and leave the show on the drawing board, or even as an imp in Hennings' imagination?
It's a good question. However it seems to me - and obviously to Henning - that magic incorporated into a musical narrative would be both enhanced and facilitated. It would be more fun - and also the opportunities a busy musical would offer for distraction, should make some of the illusions easier (in this context more magical) to pull off.
All this is true. The fault lies in its star. Henning has created these illusion and I believe that they can be operated by any actor - David Ogden Stiers, for example, in his days before MASH, replaced Henning on Broadway in The Magic Show - I think the evening would be better if they were.
There may be some who might find Henning's essentially amateurish posturing charming, and that his "civilian" presence helpful to the nature of the show. I am emphatically not among them.
How about the show itself, which has been in preview longer than a baby elephant? Of course, I am sure it has been vastly improved since it began, but there is a Broadway adage which proclaims that however much you launder garbage, all you can end up with is clean garbage.
Notably glamorous contributions are, in fairness made, by the scenery by Robin Wagner, the costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge, lighting by Tharon Musser, and sound design by Abe Jacob. Marvelous work all, and the choreography, attributed to Christopher Chadman and Billy Wilson, is lively and spirited.
The performers are talented but wasted. The more talented they are, the more wasted they seem. Chita Rivera, Henning's co-star, is most comically malevolent, and sings and dances her wicked little heart out.
But when all is said and done, when all the money bags have been totted up in red ink (it's said Merlin cost between $5 and $6 million) it all adds up to whether audiences are prepared to believe in fairies. Taking Merlin absolutely for what it intends to be - a fancified conjuring act - even though it is a show with something for everyone to hate, at times I found myself thrilling with childlike innocence at its sheer magic.
Let's hope that Henning has enough witchcraft to make all of us bad critics disappear. And while he is about to do tricks, he might just consider transforming himself into a performer with stage presence.
If ''Merlin,'' the musical at the Mark Hellinger, devoted its entire length to the magic tricks of Doug Henning, it would be something to see. Mr. Henning is beyond compare as an illusionist, and the half-dozen or so major stunts he pulls off in this show are indeed spectacular. They involve levitation, leaping flames, dancing water, a floating bubble with a man inside and, in the incredible piece de resistance that opens Act II, a live white horse and rider that vanish into thin air. Mr. Henning believes in magic, and he makes us true believers, too.
The trouble with ''Merlin'' is that its creators refuse to stick with their strong suit. Only about a third of their show - and this may be a very generous estimate - gives us the star doing what he can do best. The rest of ''Merlin'' is a sprawling Broadway musical with the consistency of glue. It's as if someone were to produce a show starring Barbra Streisand and let her sing only four or five songs so that the rest of the evening could be devoted to dog acts.
''Merlin,'' it must be noted, has not yet officially opened. In contrast to most Broadway musicals, which tend to preview for a month or less in New York before an official premiere, this one is now in its eighth week of previews. Three ''opening'' dates have been announced for the show - the third of which was last night - and then canceled. The fourth, most recently announced opening date is Feb. 13, and should changes made in ''Merlin'' by then justify a substantial reappraisal, it will be provided here.
This report is based on Thursday night's preview. While the producers of ''Merlin'' may consider the musical not yet ready to be seen by critics, they have allowed in more than 60,000 paying customers since Dec. 10 at the full, $40-top ticket scale. Open or not, ''Merlin'' is already, after ''Cats,'' the second-longest-running musical of the season.
The show I saw Thursday is by no means in chaos. It's slickly produced, with a well-oiled physical production by the same high-power design team responsible for ''42d Street,'' ''A Chorus Line'' and ''Dreamgirls.'' The choreography, by Christopher Chadman and Billy Wilson, is skillfully danced, even if it is mediocre. The performances are as polished as the caliber of the cast and the material will allow. The maladies that afflict this musical, I'm afraid, seem to be built into its very conception.
The book is by Richard Levinson and William Link, who are best known as the creators of television's Lieutenant Columbo. Their fairy-tale plot, which is paradoxically at once simple and confusing, involves the efforts of a wicked Queen (Chita Rivera) to install her idiot son (Nathan Lane) on the English throne. To achieve this Machiavellian coup, the Queen must sabotage the legendary wizard Merlin, who is determined to promote the royal ascendancy of another would-be future king named Arthur.
Certainly musicals can get by on a story as frail as this - remember ''Barnum''? - and at times Mr. Levinson's and Mr. Link's script threatens to rekindle durable narrative devices from ''Damn Yankees'' and ''Camelot.'' But the writers struggle with a major esthetic problem that no magic wand can wave away. Because Mr. Henning, who plays Merlin, cannot act, dance or sing, the authors must write their show around their title character and build it instead on the shoulders of the secondary players. No wonder the audience often feels, like Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, that it is watching a series of digressionary subplots while the main story unfolds out of view.
The few lines and song lyrics that Mr. Henning does get to recite are mumbled. When he is not performing his illusions, he just smiles absently and seems to be an anonymous gatecrasher at his own party. Almost everything that surrounds him is filler. Miss Rivera and Mr. Lane each have several villainous numbers that all sound alike. (Miss Rivera works like a demon, by the way, and looks quite funny in red-and-copper-lame insect wings.) Two good guys and one ingenue - Edmund Lyndeck, George Lee Andrews and Michelle Nicastro - also pop up to lend their muscular voices to songs that make little point and no impression. The jokes in between are not at the level of ''The Muppet Show.''
Perhaps an even more crucial failure of ''Merlin'' is its inability to transport us to its purported fantasy world of a mythical England. Except for the fact that Merlin cuts a woman ''in twain'' instead of ''in two,'' the idiom of the dialogue and performances is less storybookland than Saturday-morning televisionland. The songs, with music by Elmer Bernstein and lyrics by Don Black, have no character, with the possible exception of a jolly opening number (''It's About Magic'') that fleetingly recalls the opening number of ''Pippin'' (''Magic to Do''). Ivan Reitman's direction is sprightly only when compared with the recent ''Alice in Wonderland.''
A romantic prologue sequence, set in a starry firmament seemingly stretching into infinity, is as close as ''Merlin'' gets to spinning a genuinely enchanting spell. After that, the fog machines, Tharon Musser's spooky lighting and Theoni V. Aldredge's imaginative costumes provide what atmosphere there is. (Sometimes, however, Mrs. Aldredge too strenuously tries to evoke both ''Cats'' and ''Star Wars.'') Robin Wagner's sets, elaborate as they are, prove more dark, steely and austere than fun: they suggest what ''Kismet'' might have looked like if it had been designed by Albert Speer.
Children who are old enough to appreciate magic but not old enough to be bored by tirelessly prancing chorus boys - say, those from the ages of 5 to 12 - will undoubtedly enjoy ''Merlin'' on its own terms. Parents accompanying them may well wish that they knew the secret of Mr. Henning's truly remarkable vanishing act.