By Stanford Friedman
The idea behind Broadway & The Bard is not a bad one: take a dozen Shakespearean soliloquies and pair each one with songs from musicals that either complement the text, or humorously play against it. One could imagine a sort of Side-by-Side-by Shakespeare with, say, a diverse quartet of singer-actors sinking their teeth into the rich material. But placing the entire load upon the shoulders of a septuagenarian as done here, even when he is Len Cariou, a member of Broadway royalty, is asking an awful lot.
Mr. Cariou has tread a path that few have trod. From his first Broadway lead in 1970, opposite Lauren Bacall in Applause, to his signature performance as Broadway’s original Sweeney Todd, to recurring roles on Murder She Wrote, his current work in Blue Bloods, and a filmography that includes some 30 flicks, he has been a constant presence across many media for decades. There are quite a few Shakespearean credits on his resume as well, most stemming from his heydays at the Guthrie Theater and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Through it all, he tells us, this show has always been a dream. Two great source materials that taste great together.
While this could be interpreted as a vanity production, Mr. Cariou’s performance is anything but vain. At a non-stop 80 minutes, he gives everything he has, despite a baritone that has seen better days and high notes that now come as whispers. Indeed, if he manages to keep his voice for seven shows a week for the next month, with this much forceful delivery, I will be in awe.
The work is a strange brew. Mr. Cariou chose only pieces from plays he has previously performed, thus the thematic structure is loosey goosey. We get an age appropriate Lear, a less believable Petruchio from The Taming of the Shrew, and are left wanting at least a taste of Falstaff. His best moment comes in an evil Iago monologue from Othello, with his voice finding the exact, menacing, bass timbre that he brought to Sweeney Todd some 37 years ago. The accompanying song choices are also all over the board, from the obscure “Down with Love,” from the 1937 anti-war musical, Hooray for What!, to Lerner and Loewe’s “How to Handle a Woman,” from Camelot.
Ironically, when it comes to the monologues, Mr. Cariou’s memory is a steel trap. But he often seems to draw a blank when delivering the short transitional pieces of dialogue between scenes. These moments are betrayed with such looks of panic that at one point I honestly thought I was about to witness a medical emergency.
Visually, the show is a bit of a downer, all grays and blacks. A grand piano consumes half of the stage while Josh Iocavelli’s set is meant to represent a behind-the-scenes area replete with hanging ropes, a large bust of the bard and, alas, a Yorick skull.
Mr. Cariou’s accompanist, Mark Janas, is a veteran of the cabaret scene. He emanates New York nightlife both in his demeanor and his keyboard style. So, while he tickles the ivories with aplomb, it is off-putting to hear him occasionally toss out lines of iambic pentameter during scenes which require a second hand.
Broadway and The Bard plays through March 6. And then is heard no more. It is a tale
told by an icon, full of sound and fury, signifying that he has overreached.
Broadway and The Bard – Conceived by Len Cariou, Barry Kleinbort and Mark Janas; Directed by Barry Kleinbort.
WITH: Len Cariou and Mark Janas.
Music direction by Mark Janas; Scenic design by Josh Iocavelli; Matt Berman, lights and sound; Karen Parlato, Production Stage Manager. Presented by Amas Musical Theatre (Donna Trinkoff, Artistic Producer), in association with Alan Siegel Entertainment at the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street; http://www.amasmusical.org, (212) 239-6200. Through Sunday, March 6. Running time: 80 minutes.