Written by: Dan Mason
It’s not unheard of for Broadway producers to gamble on reviving a dated piece of material and using it as a star vehicle for Broadway royalty. Just last season Kristin Chenowith packed houses at the Broadway Theater for the critically panned, but commercially successful Promises, Promises. Given the fact that the show recouped a sizeable investment, it seemed like an intelligent risk to team Harry Connick Jr (The Pajama Game) with Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot) and let them take a crack at the 1965 flop, On a Clear Day, a show largely praised for its score, and crucified for a book about reincarnation, ESP, and other psycho-babble nonsense.
Mayer has completely re-conceived the show, taking the original story about an eccentric young woman, who was an English aristocrat in a past life, and turning it into a story of a young, gay, florist, who was formerly a female jazz singer. David Turner (Arcadia) plays David Gamble, the love interest for Connick’s recently widowed psychoanalyst, Dr. Mark Bruckner. Except he’s not really the love interest, because middle-aged females aren’t paying to see their beloved Harry Connick romancing a man on stage. So the real love interest is the jazz singer, alter-ego, Melinda Wells (Jessie Mueller in her Broadway debut).
Confused yet? Because that love triangle is only part of what’s going on in this cluttered mess. Drew Gehling (Jersey Boys) is David’s badly treated boyfriend, Warren. Kerry O’ Malley (Into The Woods, White Christmas) is completely wooden and uninteresting as a medical colleague who is secretly in love with Dr Bruckner.
There are many different things happening in Clear Day, and the problem is that it’s hard for the audience to feel emotionally invested in any of it. The notion that Dr. Bruckner could be in love with a jazz singer who died 30 years before is completely implausible and hard to buy into. Yet, you don’t believe for a second that the doctor has a true romantic interest in David Gamble. In fact, Bruckner comes across as largely uncaring about his patient, using him only to gain more knowledge about a dead jazz singer. The only character that elicits any sympathy through the first two and a half hours is David Gamble’s long-suffering boyfriend Warren, but he gets treated so badly that you just wish he would run off and find someone new who actually appreciates him.
All that being said, there is one genuinely beautiful scene in the last 15 minutes, where the show exquisitely explores the one relationship that is compelling. That is when Dr. Bruckner confronts the idea of death and tries to find closure over the death of his wife. It’s a powerful scene, and one of the few moments in the show where Connick appears emotionally connected to anything happening onstage. Unfortunately, the payoff still doesn’t justify the stupidity of the previous two and a half hours, where we are treated to ridiculous dialogue about reincarnation, ESP, and even a song asking whether it’s possible for one to learn of “pre-incarnation” and know what their next life will be.
The pacing of the show is something that needs to be addressed as previews continue. The first act checks in at 80 minutes, but feels like two hours. The second act does move along better, although the songs that feature Dr. Bruckner’s students could be cut completely, as they serve no purpose to the show at all. The set design is an eyesore, using a black and white, checkered, opt art look that gives way to bright, vivid colors, that may be appropriate for the 1970’s era, but stand in stark contrast to a show that is not “bright” at all.
The audience reaction from the Connick fan base that I spoke with at intermission seemed to be mixed, with some women just excited to see him onstage, and others who found the story to be ridiculous. One couple sitting next to us left at intermission and never returned. It will be interesting to see whether Connick’s name alone can get this show through it’s run. It will likely have to because I think the script problems are too great to be fixed in previews.