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Review: `Up, Up and Away’

Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 20, 1999. All rights reserved.

Middle America loved, and undoubtedly still loves,

the music of Jimmy Webb. To be sure, easy listening rock stations

across the country still occasionally air such soothing nostalgic

songs as "Didn’t We," "McCarter Park," "Galveston,"

"Wichita Lineman," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix,"

and the song that is the title of the commemorative revue at the Paper

Mill Playhouse, "Up, Up and Away." That Webb, who has written

a string of hits for artists like Glen Campbell, Art Garfunkel, Joe

Cocker, and Linda Ronstadt, has a place in popular musical history

cannot be denied. Frank Sinatra is quoted as saying that "By the

Time I Get to Phoenix" is the greatest torch song ever written.

Now you can quote me: Webb has no place in musical theater history.

That fact has not deterred Paper Mill’s artistic director Robert Johanson

from assembling 37 songs, for himself and three other performers,

Darius de Hass, Kelli Rabke, and Judy McLane (all Paper Mill pros),

for the new revue. Indeed, Johanson has not only conceived and directed

the show but co-stars. Supported by a six-piece, on-stage band and

two back-up singers, Emma Lampert and J. Robert Spencer, the principals

ransack and run though the Webb canon with dispatch and periodic aplomb.

While the revue has no book, nor any characters, it does make a lame

stab at a dramatic hook. That being Johanson as Webb-like, the determined

songwriter who, after years of banging out failed tunes on his piano,

finally put the notes together that will become "Up, Up, and Away."

With his spirits lifted, and with lots of movable stagecraft by Michael

Anania, and grand costumes by Angelina Avallone at his disposal, Johanson

and company embark on a musical retrospective designed to induce either

pleasure or pain depending on your taste. Many audience members wildly

applauded each familiar song, while just as many could be seen making

a beeline for the exits at intermission. I stayed and endured.

What is sorely missed in this "enter, sing your song, and exit"

revue is a real sense of the kind of man Webb is — his loves,

his life, his anything. As dated as his music is today, there may

be a proper theatrical context for the kind of blue-collar sentimentality

that the now 53-year-old Oklahoma songwriter envisioned and expressed.

Whatever it could have been, it isn’t.

Neither your imagination nor your intelligence is taxed when "Up,

Up and Away" signals a projection of hot air balloons, when "Paper

Cup" is sung within a paper cup, or when "Angel Heart,"

is sung behind a big pink . . . you get the idea. Although watching

a rocket launch may not be the worst way to backdrop "Everybody

Gets to Go to the Moon."

Whether Webb’s music typifies "the lost generation"

or the baby boomers, none of it, in my opinion, meets the standards

set either by the great theater composers or those who wrote the standards

that make up the great American songbook. But there is a drone of

sameness to too many of the ballads like "That’s The Way It Was,"

"And The Yard Went On Forever," "Little Tin Soldier,"

and "When Eddie Comes Home." Played and sung as a dour medley

they are downright boring. And as quaintly poetic as are some of the

lyrics, they contain precious little wit and certainly no sophistication.

The show is divided into two acts: "The Early Years" and "The

Later Years." And while there is a chance to smile bemusedly at

the change in the company’s haute couture from hippie to mainstream,

there is little in the way of dramatic or musical interest created

by the performers. Pony-tailed in Act I and not in Act II, Johanson

appears mostly ill at ease, and at best brings another pair of pants

to the ensemble numbers.

Despite the lackluster showcase, de Hass puts an energized ring around

"The Worst Thing That Could Happen" and "Nobody Likes

to Hear a Rich Boy Sing the Blues." Rabke tackles the Ronstadt

hit "Adios" with a modicum of verve, and McLane gives remote

emotional significance to "I Don’t Know How to Love You Anymore,"

the only song even vaguely suited to stage life. A mildly amusing

Rabke and McLane duet, "What Does A Woman See In A Man," makes

you wonder what a veteran Broadway tunesmith could have done with

the same idea. Mostly "Up, Up, and Away" makes you wonder.

— Simon Saltzman

Up, Up and Away: The Songs of Jimmy Webb, Paper Mill

Playhouse , Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343. Continues to

February 7. $25 to $50.

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