(Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon from film version of Harold & Maude)
Chat with anyone in their fifties (or older) about their favorite films and you have a good chance of stumbling on Harold and Maude. That quirky 1971 flick, tracking the brief and unlikely love affair between a relentlessly perky about-to-be-octogenarian Maude and a death obsessed nineteen-year-old Harold, became a cult fave among those who still had sunflower petals stuck in their hair from the sixties.
Now it’s been made into “an intimate musical” of the same name, and its structural flaws are numerous—from the repetitious drumbeat of songs urging us to live life to the fullest, by gosh, to a passing reference, almost offensive in its glibness, to Maude’s detention in a Nazi prison camp. Still, this production in Cain Park’s Alma Theater directed by Victoria Bussert manages to skate around all these pitfalls and deliver an evening that is at times both acerbically funny and quietly touching.
Harold is from a well-to-do family in New York City, but is tormented by his mother, the terminally self-involved Mrs. Chasen. So he is driven to stage fake suicides, such as hanging himself in the living room, events that roll off mumsie’s back with ease as she labors to find her son a girl to marry.
So Harold spends his idle time visiting funeral parlors, to feed his morbid fascination with death, where he meets up with Maude who attends funerals for an entirely different reason. She knows she is close to dying, but she is intent on living each moment. Soon these two mismatched eccentrics hook up, and Maude tries to teach Harold how to connect with life by taking chances, playing music, and dancing.
Replacing the Cat Stevens’ soundtrack from the film is a score by Joseph Thalken and lyrics (plus book) by Tom Jones, he of The Fantasticks fame. While none of the songs in H&M are as distinguished or memorable as in Jones' former hit, they are performed perfectly within character and feel quite seamless and apt.
Since this musical version dispenses with some of the movie’s subtext, such as the Vietnam War, Harold’s hovering blue funk seems a bit shallow and pretentious. But Corey Mach nicely underplays his character’s agony and doesn’t make Harold as irritating as he easily could have been in this underwritten rendition.
As Maude, Maryann Nagel has the slightly hunched-over posture of some senior citizens, but is a spirited little spark plug of verve and confidence, stealing a car for a joyride and leading Harold on a whirlwind tour of self-discovery. Downright adorable here, Nagel trills her uplifting songs with just enough rueful undertones so that one doesn’t suffer saccharine reflux from ditties such as “The Road Less Traveled” and “The Chance to Sing.”
Jacqueline Cummins captures the surface, cartoonish aspects of Mrs. Chasen, but as one of the three continuing characters she would do well to find more shadings within this role. If she did, Mrs. Chasen would actually become more threatening to Harold, more richly comical, and help justify her offspring’s morbid take on life.
However, two actors are summoned to be full-on cartoons in a series of small parts, and Patrick Janson and Devon Yates fill the bill hilariously. After competing with each other in the singing of the duet “Woe” in a church setting, Janson becomes Harold’s uncle Victor, a military man who's a cross between Gen. Buck Turgidson and the title character in Dr. Strangelove. He has been summoned by Mrs. Chasen to help make a man of her son in the song “Rata-ta-tat.” And Yates is a riot as two of Harold’s blind dates, one of whom out-weirds Harold by performing an ode to a dagger in the Macbeth-inspired “Lay On!” and then topping it off with an Aztec mini-opera.
This production, darn near ideal for a summer night outside, is enhanced by Russ Borski’s smoothly integrated set design and excellent accompaniment from the small orchestra under the direction of Jodie Ricci. It ain’t the movie, but this H&M, right down to its poignant conclusion, has an undeniable charm all its own.
Harold & Maude: An Intimate Musical
July 31- August 17
Cain Park, Alma Theatre
Corner of Superior and Lee Roads, Cleveland Heights