Friday, June 22, 2012
Aside from resurrecting Jimmy Stewart to play the lead as he did in the original 1944 Broadway production (taking over for Frank Fay who opened the run), probably no one could better bring to life the human end of the friendship than Jim Parsons, a two-time Emmy winner for "The Big Bang Theory," who charms the living daylights out of this sweet little show.
I had never seen the movie, also starring Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, because I didn’t think it would appeal to me, but I got it out of the library this spring to watch before seeing the Broadway production at Studio 54, which is directed by Scott Ellis. My senses had been right. I was bored to death and only got through about 40 minutes, and I’m a Jimmy Stewart fan. It seemed corny and dated, although I know many people have loved it through the years. And they certainly loved the original stage production, which ran for four years and is ranked the sixth longest running play in Broadway history. (Another interesting fact -- it beat out The Glass Menagerie for the Pulitzer. Cute though the play is, I don’t agree with that choice.)
Seeing it live changed the story for me completely. At two hours and 15 minutes it still drags at times, especially in the scenes at the sanatorium where Veta, Elwood’s sister (Jessica Hecht), is attempting to have her brother committed because his relationship with his imaginary friend is threatening her social standing -- and that of her husband-hunting daughter, Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo). She can be laugh-out-loud funny at times, but over-the-top at others for my taste.
But I was never bored when Parsons, as the lovably eccentric Elwood, was onstage. His sense of timing and gosh-by-golly friendliness bring what could be a silly comedy to shimmering life. He’s a harmless bloke who likes to spend his days chatting up folks at the local pub and introducing them to Harvey.
And he made me a believer. (Consequently, Hecht’s best scenes are when she believes in Harvey too.) The few special effects nicely sprinkled in to let us know Harvey is very much with us are just enough and perfectly done.
In a Playbill interview, Parsons described Elwood’s appeal. There's something "about this man's relationship to the world around him, and everybody else's reaction to that relationship, that feels timely," he said. "There's a real connectedness Elwood seems to have to the literal world around him that everybody else seems to be viewing as disconnectedness. Everyone else seems to feel he's missing the boat. I think that in many ways Elwood is…captain of his boat. He very much feels the waters of these seas."
Parsons really does seem to understand Elwood. In fact, he is Elwood. He was as real a person for me as Harvey is real to Elwood.
The company also includes Charles Kimbrough, Larry Bryggman, Peter Benson, Holley Fain, Angela Paton, Rich Sommer, Morgan Spector and a hilarious Carol Kane.
Jane Greenwood’s 1940s costumes reflect the period without making the show feel dated, and David Rockwell’s sets do the same; his wood-paneled library at Elwood’s house drew applause when the curtain rose.
I’m sure the show will receive multiple Tony nominations. Maybe even one for Harvey as best actor!