New York City Center
Hammerstein’s libretto, based on John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday and Cannery Row, was problematic, dealing with the darker side of life and its denizens. The folks in downtrodden Cannery Row were mostly sleazy layabouts who would not draw much empathy from audiences. Not surprisingly, Pipe Dream was never a hit, never near the level of Oklahoma! or Carousel, and rarely revived.
Directed with élan by Marc Bruni, however, this production is bright and imaginative, with a colorful cast, the book trimmed by David Ives and energized by choreographer Kelli Barclay’s ebullient dancers. They bring light and charm into this seamy town where most of the men are squatters in a flophouse and the play’s women work at the Bear Flag Café/whorehouse run by Fauna (Leslie Uggams). They all look up to Doc (Will Chase), an impoverished marine biologist who seems to be getting nowhere, wandering in the tide pools and playing at writing a book. Doc’s sidekick is Hazel (Stephen Wallem), not the brightest crayon in the box, but he always has Doc’s back.
Things shake up when Suzy (Laura Osnes) comes to town—a hungry, young vagrant with a rough mouth, but a good heart. Sparks ignite between Suzy and Doc, and good-hearted Fauna recognizes Suzy’s “lady side” and brings her to live, but not work, at the Bear Flag Café. Fauna then spends the rest of the show finagling for a way to get Doc to marry Suzy.
Meanwhile, in the flophouse, Mac (Tom Wopat) is a self-appointed leader and fancies himself a cut above the other vagrants, tossing about comic malapropisms. To avoid a possible eviction, he devises a plan to get the building away from its owner, Joe (Philip Hernandez), and give it to the more trustworthy Doc. A whirlwind of plots collide into a convoluted puzzle with twists like a contrived romantic dinner between Doc and Suzy, the fixed raffle, a quirky Snow White performance that backfires, Suzy’s home in a boiler room and Doc’s arm broken by Hazel. Eventually, it all untangles and we have a happy ending.
Tucked here and there are miscellaneous moments, like a sweet scene where Fauna shows the girls the new Christmas card she plans to send to clients. It does not connect to anything, but is a chance to sing “The Happiest House on the Block.” Like most of the songs, Pipe Dream features Hammerstein’s sentimental lyrics, beginning with the philosophizing “All Kinds of People.” Another is Suzy’s song of woe, “Everybody’s Got a Home but Me,” and her duet with Doc, “All at Once You Love Her,” is outstanding and is later tenderly reprised by Fauna. There are obvious musical references to other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows like South Pacific and Oklahoma!, notably in the uptempo ensemble renditions like “Bum’s Opera.”
Will Chase and Laura Osnes are attractive young theater singers and, while their attraction is not so convincing, they put it over persuasively. Tom Wopat and Stephen Wallem lend comic flair to the story. In the role of Fauna, originated by opera star Helen Traubel, Leslie Uggams with that flashing smile, is a pleasing presence. The ensemble conveys spirit and charm.
John Lee Beatty’s set of wooden frames and planks resembles a dock and supports Rob Berman and The Encores! Orchestra playing the exuberant score. The lighting by Ken Billington adds atmosphere and Toni-Leslie James’s costumes fit the bill.
Rodgers and Hammerstein knew that Pipe Dream was not part of their usual wholesome, optimistic genre, but here the Encores! creative team brought out the best of the work, and that was enough to produce a spirited musical with affable, though raffish, characters.
(Pictured: Will Chase and Laura Osnes; photo by Ari Mintz)