By Vicki Paris Goodman
Richard Kaye promised his dying father, lyricist Buddy Kaye, that he would see that the elder Kaye’s last work made it to the stage. Knowing of the son’s earnest vow, how could one help wanting When Garbo Talks! to be a great success?
With the younger Kaye’s committed advocacy, and music by Mort Garson, the new musical found its world premiere stage at Long Beach’s International City Theatre.
Depicting the rise of mysterious Swedish film star Greta Garbo, When Garbo Talks! certainly has plenty of poignant grist for the theatrical mill. Garbo’s uber-focused devotion to becoming a successful actress is, in itself, a tale sufficiently compelling to inspire an engaging dramatic play or musical. And of course there is far more to the story, all accentuated with effusive passion in this exceedingly hard-driving show.
What I can’t quite put my finger on is why When Garbo Talks! has to work so hard to tell its story. Perhaps it’s the score, a line-up of musical numbers that mostly amount to talking set to music. How about instead endowing the musical with an assortment of original songs, each one of a stand-alone quality possessing a hummable melodic line distinct from every other? Alas, those days seem to be long gone.
Also less than helpful to the show’s cause is the unimaginative and mismatched choreography, which seemed obligatory and as if borrowed from many other shows.
Jessica Burrows stars as a willowy and passionate Garbo with a more than competent singing voice. Chemistry admittedly sizzles between Burrows and actor Michael Stone Forrest, who looms large in the role of Swedish movie director Mauritz Stiller. Given the homosexuality that renders Stiller unavailable to Greta, this relationship adds interest and the only layer of complexity to the otherwise two dimensional show.
Garbo and Stiller, having naively come in good faith from Sweden into the clutches of a heartless Louis B. Mayer, are dismayed at the studio king’s deceitful Hollywood machinations.
Mayer, played with an icily confident and business-savvy American gruffness by Matthew Henerson, lends a welcome contrast to the overly emotive Scandinavian sensibility of some of the other characters. (Funny, I never thought I’d place “emotive” and “Scandinavian” in the same sentence.) Mayer’s ruthless team of loyal assistants fare well in the hands of actors Teya Patt and Nick Rogers. The trio came through with strong vocal performances throughout.
Christopher Carothers ably delivers the part of Gable-esque love interest John Gilbert. Greta’s ambivalence at Gilbert’s desire to marry her ends badly for Gilbert’s career, as he too falls victim to Mayer’s wrath.
Greta’s close friend Signe Enwall is played by a sparkling and sincere Alexandra Ackerman. Scott Kruse adeptly picks up assorted remaining roles.
Costume designer Kim DeShazo’s dresses and other attire are, on their own, almost worth the price of admission.
Apart from When Garbo Talks! simply trying too hard, it mostly lacks likeable characters and sufficient dramatic range to allow the audience a breather from the persistent intensity. Where the first act came to an uncomfortable, awkward, and anti-climactic break for intermission, the second act at least made a more consistent and believable appeal to the heart.
Given a good show, veteran director Jules Aaron and choreographer Kay Cole both possess the credentials to send a musical into the stratosphere. Unfortunately, When Garbo Talks! barely makes it through the cloud cover.