When last we heard from famed G-man Eliot Ness, film star Kevin Costner was portraying the crimefighter in Brian DePalma's flamboyant film The Untouchables, itself a knockoff of the 1950s television series starring Robert Stack. But DePalma's tale of Ness's outwitting and outgunning mobster Al Capone and company in Prohibition-era Chicago wasn't the last of the Ness revivals. In a case of reverse dramatic serialization, a new musical about the FBI agent's glory days picks up where the movies left off--and in the process makes a fine mess of Ness.
Eliot Ness...in Cleveland, a collaboration among Denver Center Attractions, the Denver Center Theatre Company and the Harold Prince Musical Theatre Program in New York, received its world premiere before a near-capacity crowd at the Stage Theatre last Friday night. The "musical historical fantasy" earned a standing ovation at the end of the evening. But that brief display of appreciation (after a single curtain call, spectators exited the theater) was mostly of the "A for effort" variety. For even though director Nick Corley's production exhibits plenty of promise, Ness remains an underdeveloped story in search of its own identity--and that's after four years and a couple of million Denver Center dollars.
The play begins with Ness (Peter Samuel in a steady, strong performance) washing his hands in a metal washbasin as a single overhead spotlight illuminates him. He tells us that it's best for a cop to empty his bowels before executing a raid on a crime-infested establishment so that criminals aren't able to "smell your fear." This bizarre bit of prologue is meant to forge a common bond between Ness and the audience, but it's just the first in a long line of ill-conceived episodes that should have been rewritten or judiciously excised long ago.
The story continues apace as several darkly costumed chorus members twitch and shuffle their way onto the stage singing, "Save Us, Eliot!," a pulsating, rhythmic tune that introduces Ness to the crime-plagued populace of Cleveland. We quickly learn that, in addition to the typical variety of petty crimes committed during the Great Depression, Clevelanders must also contend with the horrific exploits of the "mad butcher," a mass murderer who nightly litters the city's streets with his victims' dismembered, burlap-covered remains. But the body parts belong to mere hoboes and prostitutes, and the city's leaders are chiefly concerned with the impact the murderer's actions might have on Cleveland's chances of hosting the upcoming Republican National Convention.
Samuel quietly sings the stirring "A Land Whose Name Is Peace," which provides the show's most appealing melody, and a huge billboard looms behind him bearing the message "Cleveland: Happiness by the Lake." Several performers later dismantle the sign into four pieces. In a clever bit of commentary, the "Happi" part stays center stage while--you guessed it--the "ness" portion disappears from view, only to ominously reappear in gigantic letters when Eliot reprises his ballad at the end of the show.
Capathia Jenkins turns in an affecting cameo as a saloon singer, crooning the song "A Little Arithmetic" as Ness, eager to sway public opinion, promises a newspaper reporter (Alice M. Vienneau) his inside story in return for favorable publicity. Then we're introduced to The Wife (Kate Coffman), a virtually superfluous character; Capone (Terence Goodman), who appears on stage as a ghost (the real-life Capone didn't die until 1947, but this is a historical fantasy); and an evil industry captain, Stoneham, who raises our eyebrows when it appears that he may be the man behind the butcherings. Two bumbling flatfoots, Seeley (Timothy Gulan) and Marlo (Peter Van Wagner), add some much-needed comic relief to the morbid two-hour epic.
Corley does his best to give the musical an inventive staging, making good use of a couple of trap doors and a handful of special effects. But his directorial efforts are hampered by the show's hokey lyrics--for example, "Come unto me all ye slobs/All ye who have no jobs," and "Although it may sound odd/I'm starting to look like God." Moreover, several lame jokes about Cleveland fail to elicit much laughter, and a scene about a poultry pervert who likes to watch prostitutes cut the heads off chickens impedes the action, in addition to being just plain stupid). Finally, much of the show's spoken dialogue is hackneyed ("I am not acting out a fantasy, I am creating a reality" and "You don't know the first thing about being dead" are two such clinkers delivered with absolute seriousness).
To their credit, the actors try to make things credible, but not even their Herculean efforts can overcome the problems of a show suffused with banal Brechtian overtones and Sondheim-inspired tunes that lack that Broadway master's Tony-winning panache. Early in the musical, one character says, "I want results for my million dollars!" After watching this production, you can say that again.
Eliot Ness...in Cleveland, through March 8 at the Stage Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.
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