Say It With Music

Gars and Goyles directed by Andrew Borowitz at the Agassiz tonight, Nov. 10-12, 17-19 at 8 p.m.

MUSIC, THEY SAY, hath charms to soothe the savage breast; but just imagine what it can do for an anthology of bad jokes. Add a big brassy orchestra, maybe toss in some snappy choreography to back it up, and even Henny Youngman would make a passable musical comedy lyricist. Or look at it the other way: Take away the Richard Rodgers score, and Oscar Hammerstein would probably come off a lot like Jerry Van Dyke. The conclusion is clear, that in the musical comedy business the first commandment is: Say it with music--or else. Authors and directors who sin against that law too often deserve, at the very least, a long stint in Purgatory.

Andy Borowitz '80, author-director of Gars and Goyles, is treading near the edge of the Inferno with his creation. A loose musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the fall production of the Radcliffe Grant-in-Aid Society suffers the fate of many similar musicals that break from the gate with fast scores, only to get bogged down in the backstretch with a muddy script. Borowitz's music and lyrics are undoubtedly first-rate, but his book is simply ridden with too many stale jokes to carry the action. As the playwright's first effort, perhaps, the play succeeds; but taken as a whole, Gars and Goyles only makes it half-way.

The plot is par for the musical comedy course: Girl meets hunchback, hunchback falls in love, girl resists seduction by various poets and archdeacons, girl and hunchback meet in the bell-tower to live happily ever after. In between there are enough subplots and romantic interludes to keep the audience pleasantly amused, waiting for the bad guys and good guys to have it out in the final scene. So far so good. But Borowitz's manic idea somehow falters on the way to the cathedral, as the characters find themselves spouting an assortment of intolerable puns, weak jokes about SAT scores, bestiality and the Catholic Church, and often tastelessly leering sexist remarks. Instead of serving as a fast-paced interlude between the big production numbers, the plot wraps itself around its own self-conscious cuteness, and leaves the audience fidgeting in its seats.

LUCKILY, THOUGH, the songs are worth fidgeting for. Cleverly conceived and well-orchestrated, Borowitz's score definitely has a professional tone. From the opening to the finale, where the cast advises the love-lorn hunchback Quasimodo to "Get That Chip Off Your Shoulder," the score captures the tone of lunacy notably missing in the book, and infuses it with a bouncy, foot-tapping rhythm. Somehow, with an orchestra in the background, even the worst puns seem downright clever (even the heroine's tuneful realization of her love for Quasimodo--"Something 'Bout That Man That Rings a Bell"--is forgiveable). And for the big production numbers, Clarissa Bushman's slick choreography is good enough to keep even the most devoted Busby Berkely fan contented.

The cast reflects the weaknesses of the play. George Hunt, as the socially underdeveloped hunchback, turns in a strong performance but seems to be searching for the good lines he obviously deserves. He never finds them, and can only try to make up for the lack of laughs by relying on tiresome sight gags. As Esmerelda, the gypsy beauty, Heitzi Epstein is only fair: Her voice is good, but she lacks the force to capture the audience when the orchestra stops. Dave Studenmeund, as the lecherous but cowardly Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers and Maury Levin, as the lecherous but frustrated poet Pierre, also do their best with the weak script, while Stacy Stein shines as the unqualifiedly lecherous Archdeacon Frollo. Perhaps the best performance, though, comes from Fred Barton, who plays the politically slick hosier Jacques Coppenole. With a strong voice and an ingratiating smile, Barton is perfect for his role, and steals the show early on with a phenomenal Bert Parks imitation that highlights an ingenious parody of the Miss America pageant.

What problems there are, then, clearly lie in the script. Even the most energetic cast could not breathe life into some of the mothballed lines in this play. (Take the following scintillating dialogue--please: "You can't arrest me, I'm the Hunchback of Notre Dame." Phoebus: "I don't care if you're the quarterback of Purdue." Not exactly "Saturday Night Live" material.) And Borowitz's direction, though competent, is generally blind to the flaws in his own script. As a result, the play drags woefully in the first act, with each actor trying to make the best of the neovaudeville material, and barely manages to save itself for the more tuneful and lively second act. If it were not for that tremendous score, the whole effort would go by the boards early on.

The rest of the production, though, is quite professional. Louise Newman's costumes, if not sumptuous, are certainly eye-catching, and Ferric Fang's orchestra does justice to the bouncy music. Best of all, the set (designed by Robert Grossman, with hilarious graphic designs by Lee Bearson and Tom Gammill) keeps the audience laughing even when the script is flagging. Like the background in a Mad Magazine cartoon, the French Gothic Palace of Justice offers all sorts of hidden gags, which usually take a while to figure out, but are genuinely worth the effort to decipher. Unfortunately, the lulls in the action on stage offer the audience far too much time to search the background for funny material. Still, at least, the jokes are somewhere. Be thankful for small favors.

THE BIG QUESTION about Gars and Goyles, then, is whether or not the virtues of the score can make up for the sins of the book. For most musicals that does not pose a problem; audiences want big production numbers and catchy tunes to hum as they leave the theater, and are normally willing to suffer the inanities of a trite romantic plot to get what they want. The operative word is "entertainment," and a strong score can usually bring the musical message home.

By those criteria, Gars and Goyles is certainly good entertainment. The numbers are big and brassy, the songs are catchy, and the plot is nothing if not inane. But as good theater, it falls short: the book is too muddled, too much like a reading of the Worst of the National Lampoon, to sneak by unnoticed. The rest of the production is simply too good and the hokiness of the script only glares out at the audience.

Of course, in the long run it might not matter. Certainly, few people remember much about the plot of Oklahoma or The King and I; maybe the songs are all that matter after all. In that case, Gars and Goyles is a good bet, at least for an evening's worth of harmless fun. It all depends on what you're looking for: Ya pays yer money, as the hucksters say, and ya takes yer choice.