Regional Reviews: Las Vegas
Marilyn! The New Musical
One might hope that the content would be more exciting than the title, but sadly this is not the case. Summer's paint-by-numbers book crams 19 years into 90 minutes. Averaging five minutes per year, with much of the time devoted to musical numbers, this speed-through biography leaves no time for character or thematic development. Was Marilyn an anxiety-ridden naïf or a shrewd entrepreneur who knew exactly how to work the system? When and why did she become hooked on pills and booze? What drove her in her pursuit of stardom? At the end of the show, she is as much a cipher as she was at the start. We don't need historical accuracy on these points, but exploring them is crucial to the storyline. Without this depth, we might as well be reading Wikipedia.
Summer has chosen to include the true-life incident in which Monroe persuaded the owner of the Mocambo, a Hollywood nightclub, to allow Ella Fitzgerald to perform, even though the Mocambolike many clubs of that erawas closed to African-American performers. In the brief scene, Monroe promises the club owner that if he books Fitzgerald, then she will take a front table every night and her fans will follow. Yet, in the musical number that follows (a fine solo by Chanel Edwards-Frederick), Marilyn is nowhere to be seen. Nor do we get any hint of what motivated Marilyn to use her influence in this way. Was she a civil rights activist? A friend of Fitzgerald? Since we never see the two women together, this remains a mystery, and the musical number, pleasant though it is, comes across as merely an excuse to give the leading lady an off-stage break.
The book also relies too heavily on a narratorMarilyn's driver, Charlieto tell us what has happened rather than allowing us to see the events unfold. As Charlie, Frank Lawson is a dynamic singer/dancer/storyteller, but he cannot overcome the inherent weakness of this dramatic device. And there's nothing about Charlie's character that makes him worthy of this much stage time. Marilyn barely acknowledges his existence (except for once asking his opinion on what to wear), so there is no reason to think he has any special relationship to her or any particular insights into her psyche. Why, then, does it fall to Charlie to inform us that Marilyn suffered from social anxiety all her life?
The lyrics (by Summer, with additional lyrics by Gregory Nabours, who also wrote the music) are a cringeworthy stew of exposition and banalities, through which Marilyn, Charlie and others describe the story and character elements that the book fails to depict, resulting in nonstop literalism. Marilyn sings to husband Joe DiMaggio: "I let you control me. What was I thinking?" And later, to studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck: "I know that you don't respect me, but dammit I've paid my dues." Zanuck sings in return: "Norma Jeane Baker, your ass belongs to me." Still later, we are treated to Marilyn's lyrical lament: "Sometimes I think I'm gonna die alone." Poetry it ain't.
In this mostly unmemorable score, a few original songs stand out. The best of these is "The Battle of the Blondes." (This seems the most probable title, although the production did not provide a program or song list). This numberthe closest thing to a full production numberdepicts the supposed rivalry between Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, as promoted by the tabloids. While the number is well performed, and momentarily injects some vitality and much-needed humor into the proceedings, it would be more effective if it were given some context. Did Mansfield and Monroe even know each other? Were they friends? Rivals? Frenemies? We have no idea. Except for her fleeting appearance in this number, Mansfield is not even a character in the play. She gets only a passing mention in the script, when Zanuck bullies Monroe with the threat that he can replace her with any number of other hopefuls. With Mansfield getting no introduction whatsoever, we are left simply to guess that the tall platinum blonde dancing next to Marilyn is supposed to be Mansfield.
The numbers most pleasing to the ear are a series of duets between Marilyn (Ruby Lewis) and her younger self, Norma Jeane (Brittney Bertier). While it's best to ignore the lyrics, the music lends itself nicely to the melding of two excellent voices.
The overwhelming strength of this production is its cast. Ruby Lewis is a fine singer and actress, and does the best she can with a book that gives her little opportunity for character development. Not surprisingly, her best moments are when she mimics the public Marilyn in her most iconic momentsthe subway grate scene from The Seven Year Itch, her breathy rendition of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President," and the show's closing number, an all-too-brief snippet of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."
The other performers are strong as well. Particular standouts include Brittney Bertier as the young Norma Jeane, and Randal Keith as the formidable Darryl F. Zanuck. The singing/dancing chorus works hard to bring the music to life. (Unfortunately, the production has not released the names of the chorus members.) Ferly Prado's choreography is pleasant but stubbornly earthbound, as though the production was worried about someone getting hurt.
In general, the uncredited costume designs work well, especially Marilyn's succession of glamorous evening gowns. But why, in heaven's name, does the director have Marilyn wear a g-string as she climbs into bedaloneon that fateful night?
The production could do a better job of making Ruby Lewis look like Marilyn. The strikingly beautiful photos of the real Marilyn that are projected on the upstage wall tend to undermine the stage illusion. Without turning Lewis into a mere impersonator, giving the make-up artist a looser leash could do a lot to bridge the gap. And most of the wigs look slightly out of proportion; they are simply too large for Lewis's petite face. While Marilyn's "do" was a little wild, it was always the perfect picture frame.
Matt Steinbrenner's set design is somewhat disappointing, relying heavily on projections. The actual set consists of a shallow stage-width staircase that creates two performance levels, and a few sticks of furniture to differentiate various homes and offices. In contrast, the uncredited lighting design is highly effective.
The presence of a live orchestra is always a plus, and increasingly rare in many venues. While the orchestra here is small, it enjoys a prominent position onstage and is ably conducted by composer Gregory Nabours.
Despite the best efforts of the performers, Marilyn! The New Musical completely misses what made Marilyn so magical and larger than life. Yes, she was an ambitious and marginally talented sexpot, but that hardly distinguished her from the rest of Hollywood's sirens. Her star quality exploded from the screen; she knew how to work an audience, even when separated from them by a camera. Every performance was over the top. Was she a "product" created by Hollywood, or was she her own creation? Did she take herself seriously? Or was she laughing the whole time? Even in her smallest roles (such as the starlet in All About Eve), Marilyn was fun. Yet the fun is exactly what is missing from this humorless production. The only passage that delivers true delight is the faithful re-creation of the subway vent scene, as Ruby Lewis beautifully mimics Marilyn's feigned attempt to keep her featherweight skirt from becoming airborne, all the while smiling and striking her signature pose. For that brief and charming moment, Marilyn is in the house.
Marilyn! The New Musical continues inn an open-ended run (Tuesdays-Sundays at 7 pm) at the Paris Theatre, Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, 3655 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas NV. For rickets ($49-179) and information, visit www.marilynthenewmusical.com.