During one of the songs in Jennie the actors execute a series of elaborate falls, quickly jumping up again after each maneuver. Unfortunately, the production thuds gracelessly--in the same manner as the dancers--and hardly ever manages to rise above the level of labored tedium.
The infrequent moments of excellence in this tragic-comic musical, based on the life of actress Laurette Taylor, are directly attributable to the irrepressible spirit of Mary Martin, which occasionally manages to break through the bog of mediocre music, a trite score, miserably drab sets, and a despondent story.
The story follows Jennie Malone as she goes with her irresponsible actor-husband, James O'Conner, and their two children from one dilapidated theatre to another. The company presents spectacular melodramas that are presented on stage with intentional exaggeration. The production's depressing central theme deals with Jennie's struggle to save her marriage for the sake of her children, though her husband's consistent inability to face unpleasant realities causes her to lose all respect for him. In the end she realizes that by staying with him she is only dragging herself down. She eventually decides to leave him and marry a famous English playwright, whose integrity directly contrasts with her husband's dissipation.
Mary Martin is Jennie. Despite some poorly written scenes, she handles the intensely emotional sections with a maturity that proves her capability as a serious actress. At one point she sits alone in the remains of the family theater after a ravaging fire, created by magnificent lighting, has destroyed it. Her drunken husband lies asleep on the floor, having refused to face the crises. When her characteristically morose daughter, Linda, confronts her with an admission that she knows her mother doesn't love her, Jennie breaks into tears. Linda has been abhored by her mother's inability to cry, and Linda herself has never laughed. The sudden reversal of roles is one of the play's touching moments.
At her best in one of the few comic sections of Jennie, Miss Martin finally takes the stage alone to play a sultan's wife in a vaudeville routine. Cavorting around the stage in a manner slightly reminiscent of Nellie's "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair" from South Pacific, she elaborates on the hardships of being one of the sultan's many wives, singing one of the scores's best songs, "Lonely Nights." She complains that "The Sultan is my master and I wish he would make his rounds faster" and "I yearn for him and I burn for him I have to wait my turn for him."
Unfortunately the rest of the music by Arthur Schwartz is loud and tasteless, and hardly ever melodic, while Howard Dietz's lyrics are almost clever but never reach their mark.
The "High is Better Than Low" number, unsuccessfully combined choppy yelling of words with singularly bad choreography. The result was an almost totally spastic effect. Later O'Conner, played adequately by Dennis O'Keefe, tries to convince his family to come with him to his recently acquired theatre (a dilapidated church) in Seattle. His song's lyrics, "There's no battle, no rattle, in Seattle" followed by a boorish "Boom, boom, boom" are equally distasteful. Occasionally, in some of the comic routines, and in Miss Martin's warm expression of her love for life, in "Before I Kiss The World Goodbye" the score redeems itself.
In addition, many of the elaborate turntable sets by George Jenkins were impressive, though they often carried the somber mood of the play too far.