New York Times
November 22, 1983
By Frank Rich
qualities that have made Garry Trudeau's comic strip ''Doonesbury''
a national treasure are all present in the musical-comedy
version at the Biltmore Theater. You'll hear the offhand
dialogue that snares the self- contradictions of college kids of
the 1960's. You'll find some sly political jokes aimed at
targets as ideologically diverse as William P. Clark and Jane
Fonda. Best of all, you'll notice that the tone of Mr.
Trudeau's work is intact: on stage, as in the strip, Mr. Trudeau
speaks in a sweet voice that lifts him well above the madding
crowd of diurnal satirists.
more literal specifics of the newsprint ''Doonesbury'' have been
preserved as well. Jacques Levy, the director, has engaged
young performers who not only look exactly like the members of
Mr. Trudeau's Walden Puddle commune but also sound just as we
always imagined they would - even when they sing. Peter
Larkin and Patricia McGourty, the set and costume designers,
have done a clever, light-handed job of duplicating the spirit
of Mr. Trudeau's airy funny-pages doodling.
wonder, then, that ''Doonesbury'' is a pleasant show. The
surprise is that it's dull. A few bright interludes
notwithstanding, this musical never catches fire. Some of
the shortfall can be traced to conventional failings of craft in
Mr. Trudeau's book and a weak score by Elizabeth Swados.
There is also a philosophical problem. Aren't we all, Mr.
Trudeau included, getting a bit tired of watching 60's-style
students as they beat a hasty retreat into the big chill of the
Trudeau seemed to acknowledge as much when he suspended his
comic strip early this year. After more than a decade, he
and his many imitators (on and off the funny pages) had said all
there was to be said about such archetypes as Zonker, the
spaced-out tanning-fanatic from California, or Mark, the
hipper-than-thou disk jockey. In his book for the musical,
Mr. Trudeau wants to be done with these characters altogether:
the show's premise places the Walden crowd on the eve of
graduation, as they venture into the real world seeking jobs and
the commencement exercises don't occur until the final scene,
Mr. Trudeau must invent other story twists to fill up the
evening. Zonker's uncle Duke - a recreational drug
enthusiast originally inspired by the journalist Hunter Thompson
- conspires to bulldoze the students' off- off-campus house and
replace it with condominiums. Mike Doonesbury awkwardly
tries to court the feisty J. J., and J. J. tries to come to
terms with her long-lost mother, Joanie Caucus. Yet the
plotting seems perfunctory, as if the author is only killing
time while waiting to bid everyone adieu.
of the book scenes are enervated rehashes or continuations of
old strips. The show's flimsy structure only accentuates
its warmed-over feel. Mr. Trudeau is torn between writing
a standard musical-comedy narrative (complete with mawkish
resolutions) and a series of sketches, with the result that
neither form is realized. (For some reason the punchlines that
precede the blackouts are the flattest in the script.)
Only the straight political gags have bite. At various
arbitrary times - but not enough times - a cartoon White House
suddenly descends and we laugh heartily at the topical, piped-in
lines that Mr. Trudeau has given to our incumbent President.
enough, Mr. Trudeau's song lyrics, his first ever, are far
better than his book; perhaps the tight discipline of
comic-strip writing has provided him with the miniaturist's
discipline required. In the funniest (if most irrelevant)
song, a preppie chanteuse named Muffy declares, ''I love Nancy
Reagan / I love Ronnie, too / What a pity their money is so
new.'' It's too bad that Miss Swados accompanies such
words with merrily intentioned but mostly flavorless music,
wanly played by an on-stage, synthesizer-laden four-man
band. ''Doonesbury'' cries out for a score by Randy Newman
- or, failing that, one with the zip of such Broadway
progenitors as ''Bye Bye Birdie,'' ''Grease'' or ''Hair.''
Sappington's choreography is as minimalist as the music.
But Mr. Levy's efficient staging and lively cast keep the show
moving, however vague its destination. With the exception
of Gary Beach's vastly oversold Duke and the nondescript
contributions of Lauren Tom (Duke's Chinese sidekick Honey) and
Barbara Andres (Joanie), the performers could not be
better. They include Ralph Bruneau and Kate Burton as the
haltingly lovesick Mike and J. J., Keith Szarabajka as the
football-crazed B. D., Albert Macklin as Zonker, and Reathel
Bean as the most fatuous ABC-TV newsman ever to appear on
''30/30.'' That fine actor Mark Linn-Baker does as well as
possible by Mark, whose big song is especially lackluster.
class by herself is Laura Dean, as the blond cheerleader Boopsie.
''I Can Have It All'' is the title of her solo turn, and this
performer does have it all: she is a charismatic singer, dancer
and comedienne who is good- naturedly sexy without ever becoming
a stereotype. Watching her, we remember how sweetness and
sharp humor came together to ignite ''Doonesbury,'' the comic
strip. ''Doonesbury,'' the musical, too often seems pale
by contrast: the Walden gang has finally grown up, and, as Mr.
Trudeau might pejoratively put it, mellowed out.
the Real World
book and lyrics by Garry Trudeau; music by Elizabeth Swados;
based on ''Doonesbury'' by Mr. Trudeau, by permission of
Universal Press Syndicate; choreography by Margo Sappington;
directed by Jacques Levy; scenery designed by Peter Larkin;
costumes designed by Patricia McGourty; lighting designed by
Beverly Emmons; sound designed by Tom Morse; orchestrations by
Miss Swados; arrangements and musical direction by Jeff Waxman.
Presented by James
Walsh, in association with Universal Pictures. At the
Biltmore Theater, 26l West 47th Street.