A finger snaps. A toe taps. A voice croons softly. Soon these gently insistent rhythms of 1950s doo-wop play against the harsher but no less musical rhythms of a printer running off endless copies. In that one magical moment, as a bittersweet present melds seamlessly into a golden past, everything that is wonderful about Eric Winick's haunting memory play The Vocal Lords became crystal clear. As well as everything that isn't.
The moment in question came about 20 minutes into Winick's story of the reunion of two doo-wop singers, Steve Tudanger (Tudie) and Marty Joltin (Butchie), forty years after Butchie left their group the Vocal Lords for a more stable future as a printer. As the older men (the superb Philip Levy and Joseph Ragno) watch their younger selves (the even more superb Fred Berman and Ethan James Duff) emerge from the shadows of long-buried memory, what had until then been standard-issue expository dialogue handled expertly by two old pros became infused with the warm glow of youthful hope and aspiration. The sense of time and place - Brooklyn in the late '50s - was so acute (thanks to Russell Schramm's gorgeous production design, Andrea Huelse's costumes, and Dominic Housiaux's lighting design), and the prospect of seeing the story unfold through the eyes of the youthful counterparts so palpably thrilling, that the play magically created that wonderful feeling of discovery that only outstanding theater can deliver.
There were similar moments throughout The Vocal Lords, chiefly involving the scenes set in the past. But rather than tell the story linearly through a more traditional single flashback approach, Winick chose to develop his script as a series of flashbacks zig-zagging from present to past, slightly reminiscent of James Goldman's book for Stephen Sondheim's musical Follies. Dealing with the same theme (a present full of regrets haunted by the memories of a hopeful past), Goldman's book for Follies has never been considered that show's greatest asset, and similar methods Winick employed certainly didn't serve him very well either. Even Winick seemed uncomfortable with the style - his scenes between the youngsters sparkled with crisp invention; his scenes between the older men were forced and verbose, constantly setting up guideposts but stubbornly refusing to address the main issue (what caused the men to grow so bitterly apart) until very late in the proceedings. When that moment did come, and the mature Steve and Marty square off with the Tudie and Butchie they once were, it was very much a case of too little too late - despite the fiery work of the performers, the sensitive direction of Floyd Rumohr, and the ambitious if unrealized vision of Winick's script.
Because there was so much that is right about The Vocal Lords, its problems became that much more pronounced, and that much more frustrating. What was that about the road you didn't take?
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita