Eleven years have passed since Elizabeth Swados' groundbreaking "Runaways," and all this time Broadway theatergoers have been pining for another musical about abused children, street toughs and a general view of adults as nincompoops. Well, it's finally here!
"Prince of Central Park" begins with a short scene in which a slatternly woman brazenly admits to her new foster son that she accepted him only for the monthly check she'll receive. Then she cuffs him because he arrived back in their welfare hotel room while she was still "entertaining" a visitor.
All this is done in a perfunctory manner, making it clear we're supposed to accept all this as a premise for what will follow.
The boy runs away to Central Park. If the show then made any attempt to depict what might happen to a teenager at the mercy of the city, it might be interesting or amusing, maybe even moving. But all we see are cliches, images of Central Park that suggest the creators had never viewed it from anywhere closer than Parsippany, N.J.
Thus we have joggers, office types, a bag lady and a multi-racial gang of drug-dealing thugs (whose major client seems to be a nattily dressed stockbroker apparently unaware there are more convenient places to buy drugs - it's amazing someone this thick can make a living on Wall Street).
In addition, there is a yenta whose 30-year marriage is breaking apart who runs to lose weight. She and the boy develop a relationship by writing each other messages in chalk on a park bench. Eventually he invites her to see the treehouse he has built from odds and ends he has collected. Unfortunately, her presence complicates his fragile link to the thugs.
None of this is presented with the slightest whimsy or genuine understanding. It all passes quickly by in sitcom-length scenes, punctuated by music and lyrics of equal dreariness and witlessness.
The one moment where the show came to life the night I saw it was when a waiter stumbled over a chair and Jo Anne Worley ad-libbed a line. It was hardly on the level of Nichols and May or even of Worley's alma mater, "Laugh-In," but it was the only moment all evening long that seemed the response of an actual human being.
Worley is a real trouper, with strong comic timing and a husky, acid voice that brings life to even the dumbest lines (and God knows the script offers her plenty). She has real presence, too. If only this had been a revival of "Once Upon A Mattress!"
Richard H. Blake has energy and charm as the boy, and Anthony Galde handles the ineptly written role of the gangleader with gusto.
The rest of the cast go through their paces with determination and occasional, understandable hints of embarassment. They even manage to do Tony Tanner's cliche-ridden choreography with zest.
This is evidently Crap Week on Broadway. The word figured prominently in "3 Penny Opera" and a whole song's rhymes hinge on it here. What more can I say?
There is a serious theme running through the musical "The Prince of Central Park," which opened at the Belasco Theater last night. But it runs too fleetingly and too fast, trips up and drowns in a treacle sea of fake sentiment and honest ineptitude.
It is based on a novel by Evan H. Rhodes, which I must confess I have never read, and a 1977 TV movie with Ruth Gordon, which I never saw. How faithful the adaptation is, I cannot say - but it must satisfy the writer of the novel, as he also authored the musical's book.
So there goes another novel to be put on my library list of books never to be read under any circumstances.
Mind you, Rhodes is not entirely to blame. Indeed, the dull and overly familiar-sounding new music by Don Sebesky and the prosaically pedestrian lyrics by Gloria Nissenson could do "War and Peace" an acute disservice.
The theme of some seriousness is of a battered foster-child running away to build a sanctuary for himself in the shape of a treehouse in Central Park, the trouble he encounters from the punks who make the park their nursery for crime and the middle-aged woman, newly deserted by her husband, who befriends him.
Abused children, lonely middle-aged women, runaways, street crime and drugs - these are not stuff for sentimental fantasy. Also, to manipulate our feelings for the children of misfortune in order to fuel a meretricious fairy tale of jaded fancy is dishonest, cashing in, a tad too commercially, on the painted pain of dolls.
Of course, the theater quite rightly knows no morality, and were "The Prince of Central Park" more engaging in its tone, more efficient in its staging and more original or at least ingratiating in its words and music, the issue of sickliness might not have been thrown up.
One technical difficulty of the story - totally apart from its saccharine factor - is that it seems oddly anchored in Central Park.
The writers, and presumably the director/choreography, Tony Tanner, have tried to give a little variety of venue, placing one scene in a restaurant (apparently solely to show the tardiness and unreliability of the deserted woman's husband) and another scene in a department store for reasons I never quite gathered.
The production is modest and the cast is small. The settings by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case run the gamut on trees, from twig to branch, and perhaps it might be recycled if anyone wanted to make a musical out of that Central Park play "I'm Not Rappaport."
Tanner's production proves routine, his choreography painless and the performances only rarely rising above the mere adequacy the occasion so casually demands and so effortlessly deserves.
Jo Anne Worley as the merry divorcee facing banishment to darkest Florida seems jolly enough, and certainly does her level best to make silly songs such as "One of a Kind" acceptable if not memorable.
Even better is young Richard H. Blake as the runaway, who is a most pleasantly personable boy with a strong, accurate alto voice. If the musical runs too long his voice will presumably break and he will have to be replaced - but that, I suspect, is a bridge the producers can cross if ever they come to it.
Anthony Galde is also quite good as the leading punk, and the ensemble, including (and this is a fair sample of Rhodes' wit) a bag lady who makes comic telephone calls from a broken telephone, does its best to wade through the material.
I saw it with a very amiable matinee preview audience that seemed - by and large - to enjoy it very much, and the show might find an audience, of which I would not be a willing part. In my subjective view this show, which started in Florida, should have stayed in Florida - the alligators might have found it more to their taste.
Incidentally, let me welcome back to the land of the living the beautiful Belasco Theater, which has been dark for far too long. If only I had been reviewing the theater instead of the show!
''Prince of Central Park,'' the new musical at the Belasco, is a numbing evening of such guileless amateurism that it will probably have a future as a Harvard Business School case study, whatever its fate in the annals of drama. Even modest Broadway shows like this cost more money than the gross national product of some third world nations. People put up this money. As long as there are people as gullible as the sponsors of ''Prince of Central Park,'' the theater need never fear for its survival.
The author of the book is Evan H. Rhodes, whose novel of the same title also served as the basis for a Ruth Gordon made-for-television movie. He tells the ''Harold and Maude''-ish story of Jay-Jay (Richard H. Blake), a 12-year-old foster-home runaway who lives by his wits in a tree house in Central Park until he encounters Margie Miller (Jo Anne Worley), a jogger of late middle-age who has just lost her husband to a younger woman and her adult daughter to the career track.
Since Jay-Jay and Margie must meet cute - through chalk messages left on a pristine park bench - Act I is all exposition. In Act II, Jay-Jay and Margie bravely overcome outmoded legal obstacles and moral attitudes to get married. They adopt five children, two of whom become the first sibling astronauts and together head a successful manned space mission to Pluto.
Actually, I am lying. Something else entirely happens in Act II. But I assure you that my version is more interesting.
The soft rock score, by Don Sebesky, is insistently cheery even when muggers are singing about ripping off little old ladies; the tunes don't so much linger in the mind as pound it senseless. Though in one number (''Zap'') Gloria Nissenson's lyrics make nearly as much use of a four-letter synonym for excrement as does ''Threepenny Opera,'' her more typical phrases deal with ''turning a new leaf,'' ''setting myself free,'' ''growing my dreams'' and discovering that ''here's where I belong.''
Tony Tanner's choreography doesn't just resemble aerobics. It is aerobics.
And the jokes? On her first entrance, Ms. Worley cups both breasts and says, ''Gravity, gravity, what did I ever do to you?'' Shortly after that she wishes to a star that her estranged husband's penis will ''fall off in bed tonight.'' And to think that family entertainment had begun to appear a lost cause in the American musical.
The performances are nothing if not strenuous. The young Mr. Blake belts out every song mechanically and interchangeably, seeming less like a refugee of the streets than an aging Mouseketeer. Wearing a series of colored jogger headbands and novelty T-shirts, Ms. Worley plunges through the show like a Mack truck, mowing down everything before her with a personality undiminished in bulk or pitch since the halcyon days of ''Laugh-In.'' Among the supporting players, a dancer named Alice Yearsley proves to be the production's entire store of grace and style. Though her roles are several and small, she never fails to carve out her own delicate space from the crass spectacle around her.
Much of that spectacle has to do with celebrating the city of New York. This would be swell if one actually believed that anyone connected with ''Prince of Central Park'' had spent much time in the city lately. (The show originated in south Florida, and there are a few gratuitous but knowing jokes about ''retirement villages.'') Among the Manhattanites onstage are a friendly park ranger out of a Smokey Bear promotional campaign, an adorably cuckoo bag lady and, for a dash of malevolence, a gang of well-scrubbed crack dealers whose ethnic makeup is so demographically balanced that they might have first convened at the United Nations. But the biggest unintentional laugh for a New York audience arrives when Ms. Worley ventures into Bloomingdale's and is immediately welcomed by a kindly silver-haired saleswoman who offers her complete undivided attention.
''Prince of Central Park'' also has a serious obsession with Tavern on the Green, whose name is dragged into nearly every scene before and after serving as a setting for a dance number. Given the vehicle for these insistent plugs, it's hard to know whether the restaurant should consider itself the beneficiary of free advertising or the victim of a dissatisfied customer's personal vendetta.