I offered this review in 1997 on my personal website, then hosted at a university. Since that site is no longer available, I'm republishing the review here.
Book: James Racheff
Music: William Scott Duffield
Lyrics: William Scott Duffield and James Racheff
Magic Consultant: Peter Samelson
Where: The Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, Connecticut (http://www.goodspeed.org)
When: September 24 – December 14, 1997: Wednesdays at 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Thursdays & Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 4 & 9 p.m.; Sundays at 2 & 6:30 p.m.
- The Official Houdini Seance®, on stage on October 30 beginning at 11 p.m.
- Magic Nights on October 2, 9 and 16, featuring the "close-up" magic of Jim Sisti beginning at 7:15 p.m.
When Sid Radner first pointed out to me that this fall would bring the world premiere of a musical inspired by the life of Houdini, I was somewhat hesitant to show great enthusiasm for such a project. It's not that I object to creative adaptations, though in the case of Houdini, historical revisions always leave me wondering why the remarkable reality of his life isn't already sufficiently dramatic. Nevertheless, I had grown to enjoy such semi-fictions as the Curtis/Leigh film.
What gave me pause, rather, was the vision of Harry Houdini breaking out into song and dance–a mental block against envisioning somber, serious, self-possessed Houdini doing the ol' Astaire. And yet, I thought, what with the success of Ragtime in LA, the 1990s are apparently, though somewhat inexplicably, the season for creative development of stage material inspired by his Roaring 20s life. The Goodspeed is well-known for staging admirable productions, many of which proceed to Broadway or London, or at least enjoy critical acclaim. So I tried to allow the theater's reputation to temper my skepticism a bit and ventured forth to remote East Haddam to see what was cooking.
I am pleased and surprised to say that Houdini works. The dramatic hinge of the story is an apparent love triangle between Bess (correctly depicted as a Coney Island showgirl), Theo ("I saw her first, Harry"– also apparently correct), and Harry ("I'm not a clown!") Houdini. This intrigue plays out against the thematic backdrop of their descent into dime-museum poverty in the 1890s and their rise to fame and glory under the guiding hand of impresario Martin Beck, played with pizzazz by a flashy P. J. Benjamin.
From the many scenes in which he sings of how underappreciated his talents and potential are, to his reluctance to give up trying to contact Harry at the 1936 Houdini seance, Theo (played by Lewis Cleale) is, unexpectedly, the play's central character. It is equally surprising to find that Theo is the antagonist, presented (as is Harry) in a rather unflattering light. Early made to feel inferior by the innocent favoritism shown to Harry by their mother (played with great charm by Barbara Andres), Theo is bewildered by Harry's egocentricity and chutzpah. He bewails at length the fact that, though he was accustomed to being one of the Brothers Houdini, and in some respects the preeminent one, his dreams are increasingly trumped by his brother Harry's driving ambition. Driven by the playwright's considerable license with the historical facts, Theo senses that Bess (played as soulful, lovelorn heroine by Barbara Walsh), too, feels displaced as Harry's fame grows, and recognizing that Houdini's intense devotion to his work and his mother have left Bess vulnerable, Theo intones to her how much better things would be for them both if she were *his* wife. Though (and perhaps because) these mutual longings apparently remain unconsummated, Theo begins to calculate ways to get Houdini out of the picture.
Timothy Gulan is remarkably convincing as Houdini, both physically [my wife's comment: "They got the hair right"] and with respect to his acting, though his voice was sometimes swallowed up by the fervent orchestral ensemble. During the course of the evening he performs the Metamorphosis, throws himself into a dazzling slow-motion bridge jump at the moment he learns of his mother's death, executes a variety of unremarkable handcuff escapes, releases himself from a straitjacket [a modern white canvas one, rather than a leather model from the period–a pet peeve of mine] while dangling in the air, performs the Hindu Needle Trick, and presents himself before audiences with the pomp and self-importance that helped make him an icon. Lovers of magic will be pleased by the panoply of production flowers, 10-foot poles, coins pulled from the air, appearing canes, vanishing persons, and other tokens which pay loving, if stereotyped, homage to the art.
In one of the show's more memorable early sequences, Harry is frustrated and perplexed that his midwestern circus and dime-museum audiences fail to appreciate the importance of his escapes and magic. As he tries to figure out just what is lacking in his performances, he is suddenly confronted by Wild Bill Hickok and Annie Oakley, PT Barnum, and Flo Ziegfield, who, along with Cheng and Eng Bunker, General Tom Thumb, and a host of other human oddities and feathered showgirls, walk out of lithographs into the dramatic space and divulge to Harry the secrets of formula and publicity. They do this with gusto in a spirited song, "You Know It When You See It", that, in lyric and tune, is strikingly similar to "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" from Gypsy. Meanwhile, Houdini strokes his chin and figures out how to reinvent himself. Harry's whirlwind rise to success is epitomized in a startling and funny barrage of challenges presented by company heads of ever increasing prominence, while his many European adventures are conflated into a single tour — Houdini buffs will note that the chronology is much abused — that leaves the police of many nations complaining indignantly, in song, that the integrity of their jails has been cast into doubt by this presumptuous American.
After the death of Mrs. Weiss, Houdini sets out on the familiar hunt for a spiritualist who can reunite them. A delightful, if not terribly deceptive, black-art presentation follows as a trio of mediums sings of "telling them what they want to hear." Although Houdini, on a rampage, exposes one after another of them, he succumbs to the physical and metaphysical charms of (of all people) Margery, who seems to be able to tell him things that only Mama would know. As it turns out, Theo has given Margery some early correspondence from their mother. He has done this ostensibly in an effort to appease his brother's self-destructive obsession with the afterlife by having Margery tell him what he wants to hear, but actually to further alienate Bess from him. This triangle erupts into a backstage conflagration at the play's climax. The famous punch to the appendix leads to the subsequent downfall of the hero while he and Theo (who urges him to perform rather than go to the hospital) are still on bad terms, and while Harry and Bess have only just rekindled their mutual passion.
The playwright has undercut the myth of the self-made man by presenting a Houdini who is chiefly, though not wholly, a product of the creativity and industry of others. When Martin Beck first turns up, Houdini has to ask Theo what kind of lock is on the cuffs with which Beck has challenged him. Later, when a backstaged Theo threatens to leave the act and strike out on his own, Houdini sets him up as Hardeen chiefly because Houdini can't work without him. Houdini is managed by Beck throughout his rise to fame in this production, and indeed right up to the end. With the ringmasterly Beck quite obviously pulling the journalists' strings and providing spin to the public, Houdini gets little credit for achieving, sustaining, or exploiting his own success. With his dependence on Theo and Beck and his oblivion with respect to his excesses and his crumbling marriage, this Houdini is all too human, quite a counterpoint to the usual lionized representation.
Voices are strong, the acting is persuasive, and the book, while not free of cliche, was tolerably original. While not life-changing, the show is certainly entertaining, giving all that one expects from musical theater. The score is an evenhanded blend of a few key songs from which leitmotifs are taken and used to punctuate the show's other tunes–a common musical formula in this post-Lloyd-Webber age, and one that seems to please audiences who have been trained by Hollywood to respond to the throbbing intonations of an expository score. The music is competently written, but there is no show-stopper, and indeed no song that one goes away singing. The first half of the show struck me as much more replete with clever staging and varietal music than the second, which tended to drag a bit and led to a climax and resolution that were perhaps a bit too easy and understated. Still, the show is entertaining and the time well-spent.
As we were leaving the theater, I overheard some audience members giving their on-the-spot evaluation. "Do you think it will go to Broadway?" asked one woman of her elderly friend. "Off-Broadway," I thought to myself. "Oh, I think it will," replied the other woman, "but you know, I didn't think he had died that way! I thought he had died doing one of those tricks!" The incorrigible legend lives on.