YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

THEATER REVIEWS : Weak Plot an Uneasy Resting Place for 'RIP'

November 17, 1994|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — "RIP," a new musical based on "Rip Van Winkle" at Huntington Beach Playhouse, is referred to by its producers as "a work in progress." It could progress in either of two directions.

As far as composer-lyricist Tim Nelson has gone, it is a fairly bland affair, as the program says, "suitable for the entire family." It could be a children's show. Or, it could delve deeper into the sociological and metaphysical elements of the original story, from Washington Irving's "The Sketch Book," and become a fascinating musical on more adult themes.

Either road could work. Nelson has a comfortable ear for a melody, and for a lyric, even as soft and innocuous as the present ones are.

Whatever the target audience will eventually be, the big problem with the show at this stage is the book. Flawed librettos have plagued almost every musical ever written. It took 19th-Century actor Joseph Jefferson a number of years to make the Rip Van Winkle story work on stage and required the help of Dion Boucicault, that era's greatest play doctor, to eventually solve the problem.

That Irving's simple tale has to be somewhat expanded for theatrical use is granted. What Nelson and collaborator Kent Johnson have done to the story is disastrous. They have taken away the blood and sinew, the fantasy and the intent of the original.

Dame Van Winkle, here called Gretchen, has been turned into a victim wife from a television movie. Her alcoholic husband, Rip, is the bane of her existence. After Rip wanders drunkenly into the mountains and is thought dead, she marries the town lecher, who wants to appropriate the Van Winkle properties. She is then abused mentally and physically for 20 years until Rip returns and they melt happily ever after into each other's loving arms.

Irving's Dame Van Winkle, in his own word, was a "termagant"--a quarrelsome, scolding shrew. Rip went into the mountains to escape her hateful person. With no mention of drunkenness, Irving's Rip was merely a happy, unambitious man, who over-imbibed for the first time on the fateful night he met the ghost of Henrick Hudson. His wife dies before his return, having burst a blood vessel shrieking at a peddler.

The current version ignores the lessons, wisdom and intent of Irving's parable. Its insights into mores are forgotten in a misguided attempt to "improve" Irving's work.


Nelson directs his cast in this fairly bare-bones staging with spirit, and a number of the performers help his score put its best foot forward.

Mary Murphy-Nelson as Rip's wife, a Mary Tyler Moore version of a shrew, and Kayre Morrison as his grown daughter, sing beautifully, as does the adult boyfriend of the daughter, played stalwartly by Vince Aniceto, who also sings the show's best song, "Love's Forever," with Morrison. Michael Cook has a flair for the light melodies and simple lyrics he has to sing as Rip, playing a vaudeville drunk (with a vaudeville Dutch accent) for the first half but more effective as the aged Rip.

The rest of the cast barely overcomes the simplistic silliness of the plot, particularly the poor children wearing bulky, hooded costumes as the shades of Hudson's crew. They look like lethargic Pac-Men.

* "RIP," Huntington Beach Playhouse, Huntington Beach Central Library, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $7-$8. (714) 375-0696. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Michael Cook: Rip Van Winkle

Mary Murphy-Nelson: Gretchen Van Winkle

Kayre Morrison: Adult Anna

Vince Aniceto: Adult Henrick

A Huntington Beach Playhouse production of a new musical by Tim Nelson. Directed by Tim Nelson. Choreography: Jennifer Simpson. Scenic design: Teri Landi. Lighting design: Terri Verhaegen. Costume coordination: Linda J. Holland, Sharell Martin. Stage manager: Terry Russell.

Los Angeles Times Articles