There are too many interesting moments in C. Bernard Jackson's "The Four Seasons" to let the frustrating incompleteness of it cloud the fact that this is one musical more concerned with ideas than soothing entertainment.
Since it is a musical-in-progress about a musical-in-progress, the audience is especially aware that it is witnessing something of a lab experiment (as opposed to experimental theater, which this definitely is not) on the large, unwieldy Inner City Cultural Center stage. The test run Saturday only reaffirmed that theater's work is never done.
Though the program doesn't credit a book, that is what Jackson has written: a story about a playwright, haunted by images and reminders of death, burdened with bills his theater is running up, unable to get his show finished.
That his name is E. Patrick Hardesty (Calvin Lockhart) makes it too obviously autobiographical. We don't know if he is also the director. There is a poor subplot involving one of the show's staffers and his stillborn baby. Only three characters in an eight-member cast are more than a sketch, and one of them (Emily Yancy as the resident prima donna ) is a cliche. It's a book, but it's barely there.
What is unmistakably there is the score--14 songs, with no reprises. Jackson's music doesn't have a musical-comedy sensibility, so there are no reverberations from other shows. Many of the songs--"Earthquake," "Don't Play With Children," "Gentle Man"--derive from classical, jazz or gospel traditions without being derivative. In this sense, this is a far more intriguing show to listen to than "Mail," which picks bits from every musical-comedy bag in reach.
Some of the time signatures and key changes are so dazzling that many of the singers in the spirited, committed cast and, often, pianist Eric Butler's backup quartet simply cannot keep up. Only Mel Carter, as the music director Clyde, stays on top of his game from start to finish, fluidly swimming up and down what sounds like a five-octave range. The tunes actually require that kind of voice on occasion, and it's very evident what heights "The Four Seasons" could reach given the right personnel.
The story is hardly connected to the music, which dramatically shifts in tone, mood and pace from one minute to the next. Indeed, it is the very effort at linking songs to dialogue or action--as when Hardesty sees a dying bird outside his window, and then Yancy sings "Poor Bird"--that emphasizes the narrative's skimpiness and lack of emotional mainspring.
This isn't a crisis for the show, since it is three-fourths music. The real cost of the narrative vacuum is the muddled way the individual songs even link up with each other. When, for instance, the ensemble launches into "Winnie Mandela/Set Him Free," we wonder what South Africa has to do with the laments of show people.
Other minor and solvable problems include Lockhart's strained and inaudible voice and choreographer KaRon Brown's ersatz-Ailey dance routines. The first can be cured with time; the second should be excised. Imagine a modest living quarters set in a vast arena and you have Virgil Woodfork's set (partly blocked by the poor sightlines). Chris Blodgett's lights are marred only by a spot operator with butterfingers.
Despite it all, with a firm hand to guide things at this fragile phase in the show's life, "The Four Seasons" could very well blossom . . . check back when the days warm up.
Performances are at 1308 S. New Hampshire Ave. on Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Sundays, 3 p.m. through Feb. 14. Tickets: $17; (213) 387-1161.