Somewhere in time, love conquers all

Center Stage's world-premiere musical shifts back in time. Is its future on Broadway?

The ensemble cavorting at the Grand Hotel. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

The ensemble cavorting at the Grand Hotel. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Seemingly out of nowhere, he shows up. She turns, shocked, a little hopeful, a little afraid.

“Is it you?” she asks tremulously.

Why, yes. Impossibly, it is.

For a guy who’s just traveled 68 years into the past to meet the girl of his dreams, the signal could hardly be more welcoming. She’s been expecting him. Not even a crazy mixed-up thing like time can keep a love like theirs apart.

The 1980 movie “Somewhere in Time” starred Christopher Reeve as a badly blocked contemporary playwright and Jane Seymour as a beautiful actress from the year 1912, soulmates who transcend the tyrannies of the calendar and a Svengali determined to keep them apart. The film overcame light initial box office and so-so reviews to build a cult following of history buffs, travelogue enthusiasts (lots and lots of Architectural Digest-style eye candy), speculative-fiction fans and unabashed romantics. In countless bedrooms and living rooms across the land it remains a favorite date movie, not just for its gauzy love story but also for its tantalizing suggestions of the flimsiness of the barriers of time.

Now – thanks in large part to writer and producer Ken Davenport, who’s spent a dozen years pulling the complex parts of the thing together – it’s made the leap to the musical-theater stage, in a world-premiere production that opened Wednesday night at Portland Center Stage. Cast mostly in New York and mostly with Broadway veterans, it has a firm eye on transferring to Broadway. Center Stage is playing the role of the old-fashioned tryout town, a contemporary New Haven or Boston or Baltimore, and it’s an excellent addition to the theater company’s bag of tricks.

Wednesday’s opening revealed a show with some appealing songs (music by Doug Katsaros, lyrics by Amanda Yesnowitz) and a generous dose of charm to go with some solid, well-polished performances. The play gives up some of the visual spectacle that makes the movie so ravishing – notably the lushly filmed scenes of the Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, a virtual costar of the movie – and offers in its place the immediacy and intimacy of the stage. The show seems to me genuinely promising and still in need of some script and musical work, which it will probably get between now and any Broadway opening.

For what can be looked on as essentially a shakedown production, Davenport, director Scott Schwartz, and company have taken pains to get things right. The voices are all Broadway-sharp, led by Andrew Samonsky (the recent New York revival of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”) as the playwright, Richard Collier; Hannah Elless (“Godspell”) as the actress Elise McKenna; and multiple Tony and Drama Desk nominee Marc Kudisch as William Robinson, Elise’s formidable and dangerous career manager. Veteran trouper David Cryer, who’s spent a long stint on Broadway as Peron in “Evita” and an astounding 19 years on Broadway and touring in “The Phantom of the Opera,” brings a wonderful and sorely needed lightness to the lead supporting role of the old bellhop Arthur, who’s been at the Grand Hotel since pretty much forever; and child actor Brady James more than holds his own as Arthur’s young 1912 self. Alexander Dodge’s revolving set is adaptable and efficient (I imagine a lot more money would be put into it for a Broadway run), Jeff Cone’s period costumes are spot-on, and musical director Rick Lewis leads a tight, 14-piece orchestra that puts out ample sound without overpowering the singers.

Samonsky and Elless: a love beyonf time. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Samonsky and Elless: a love beyonf time. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

At this point, “Somewhere in Time” is a double period piece, beginning in the 1970s when Richard’s a bright young writer fresh out of college and then fading back to 1912, which can be looked on as the very end of the Victorian/Edwardian 19th century, just before the illusion-shattering changes of World War I. It’s based on Richard Matheson’s 1975 novel “Bid Time Return” (renamed “Somewhere in Time” after the movie came out), one of a handful of latter 20th century books in which troubled contemporary characters find themselves hurled into a past that seems somehow more companionable to their out-of-joint personalities. Darryl Brock’s 1990 baseball novel “If I Never Get Back” takes his disgruntled journalist hero back to 1869 and a stint with the Cincinnati Red Stockings, in a time when virtues were more straightforward and ball players were tough enough to field the ball bare-handed. “Time and Again,” Jack Finney’s gripping 1970 minor classic, takes an advertising artist back to 1882, where he eventually makes a fateful decision to change the course of history. (“Time and Again,” published five years before “Bid Time Return,” uses the same method of self-hypnosis to travel back in time; in an authorial tip of the hat, Matheson names the doctor who pioneers the method – played at Center Stage by Cory English – “Dr. Gerard Finney.”)

These three books, while something of a piece, also share affinities with such time-speculative novels as Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 “Slaughterhouse-Five” (whose haunted hero Billy Pilgrim is “unstuck in time”) and one of the granddaddies of science fiction, H.G. Wells’s 1895 “The Time Machine.” Each of these novels dips into a different time period to make critical assessments of its own time, although the movie version of “Somewhere in Time” strips away most of the sociological perspective to concentrate more purely on the romance. That softening may well account for its less than stellar initial reviews.

In adapting the story for the musical stage, Davenport has slipped past some of the film’s decisions and returned to the novel. The result is a spikier story that shows its claws more than the soft-focus movie. Crucially, Richard isn’t just holed up at the Grand Hotel because he’s got writer’s block, as Reeve is in the film. He’s there because he’s under a death warrant: He has a brain tumor and has been given a year or less to live. But Davenport keeps his earlier era as the movie’s 1912 (Matheson’s novel goes back to 1896) and keeps the action on Mackinac Island (the novel is set at the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego, and Elise’s character is based closely on the life of actress Maude Adams).

I’m not sure how well reintroducing Richard’s death sentence works. It requires a lot more setup, which whisks past in declarative form, and gets things off to a maudlin start. The musical version is slow out of the gate: It doesn’t really kick in dramatically until Kudisch’s relatively late arrival as Elise’s domineering manager. Kudisch’s insinuating, coolly antagonistic performance deepens the stakes and gets things rolling, finally, toward a satisfying climax.

Moving forward, I’d like to see a little broadening out of the story to include some comic relief and more dance scenes, and more variety in the songs, which are melodically appealing but seem a lot alike. As the golden-age musicals, and even the best sung-through shows, such as “Les Miz,” understand, big-payoff songs have their most potent impact in contrast with numbers in a different style: slow versus upbeat, serious versus comic, arranged to provide a forward-pulling rhythm. The show needs some syncopation. A musical also needs some moments of magic, and I think they’re here, in the likes of Elise’s breakaway song “Something My Heart Never Felt Before.” But like any jewel, they need a proper setting to stand out. I’d also like to see a little stronger division between the songs for the ’70s scenes and the ones for 1912. At a little over two hours, the musical could easily afford another 15 minutes, and some judicious trimming of the setup scenes could allow even more broadening of the story without bogging things down. The seeds of comic relief are here – Sharonlee McLean’s goofy maid to Elise, English’s mad scientist, Lizzie Klemperer’s lovelorn librarian, among others – and crowd scenes at the hotel could easily expand into much more compelling dance scenes. And I’m not sure the show’s decided whether it wants to be a simple romance, like the movie, or whether it wants to shade the love story with some of the darker social themes that the novel explores.

In the meantime, this is a pretty good beginning (or intermediate step), with some very talented performers. Portland has turned into a center for new-play development, and this tie-in with a Broadway producing team fits in comfortably. “Somewhere in Time” isn’t yet what it probably will become, but this production offers Portland audiences a fascinating high-level glimpse of the process, and the show is far enough along that it doesn’t feel unfinished – only improvable. Play development is a long and involved process. I remember watching several premieres of August Wilson plays in Seattle that ran an hour longer than their eventual Broadway versions, and I never regretted a moment of the extra time. This play isn’t perfect (indeed, literalists will find plenty to pick at in the plot). But it’s deep in the process, and that offers a fascination of its own.

*

“Somewhere in Time” continues through June 30 at Portland Center Stage. Ticket and schedule information are here.

 

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