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New Amsterdam Looks Great, but . . .

Theater review: Disney's elegantly restored theater opens with a less-than-regal 'King David.'

May 20, 1997|LINDA WINER-BERNHEIMER | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — First things first. The Walt Disney Co. has given New York a place to love. Whatever else happens next in the infantilization, sterilization and standardization of Broadway and the world by creeping corporate enculturation, the New Amsterdam Theatre--which Disney unveiled with almost laughable black-tie solemnity Sunday night--is a beauty.

The 1903 Art Nouveau kitsch-palace, which showed its last stage play in 1937 and its last 42nd Street movie in 1982, has been painstakingly restored (with more than a little help from state and city grants and low-interest government loans) to be a $36-million model of enlightened urban renewal, grand theatrical intimacy and general fantasy fabulousness. Embraced by the soft forest colors and the nonstop florid ornamentation in the 1,800-seat playhouse, we can almost forget that a mall-quality Disney store is looming off the foyer with the Shakespeare and Wagner murals. We see no Trojan Horse among the painted allegories in the sylvan lobbies, but might be forgiven for expecting to find one there.

Instead, we have "King David," described in press releases as a "world premiere concert event" but more like a benediction for the hall, a nine-performance excuse for a CD and a possible (but I wouldn't bet on it) tryout for a full production. The Alan Menken-Tim Rice musical--presented oratorio-style for almost three hours--confuses banality with dignity, bombast with piety.

For all the sublime playfulness of the theater, the work is an ambitious and derivative example of the it's-so-loud-and-humorless-it-must-be-art style, the dull but earnest offspring of "Jesus Christ, Superstar" and "Les Miserables." We cannot help feeling that, in an effort to deflect the inevitable sniping about the Mickey Mouseification of Broadway, Disney instead took us to Sunday school.

Most surprisingly, Disney's storytelling gifts are failing here. Menken and Rice--who have worked together on parts of "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin"--are both solid professionals. And Disney, which relied on its own creative teams for Broadway's cheesy adaptation of "Beauty and the Beast," has gone for top Broadway talent this time.

Since this is only partially staged, however, director Mike Ockrent seems not to have had the latitude to show what he can do. The story lacks tension and, when the full orchestra is blasting, is hard to follow. Tony Walton's "set" is, of necessity, little more than circular disks to hold the gratifyingly enormous orchestra on the second and third levels of the promisingly huge stage, with Hebrew letters along the back wall, colored lights, a few tentative puffs of stage smoke and the occasional mystic lightning bolt. William Ivey Long's costumes for the principal players suggest Middle East by way of Greenwich Village in the '60s.

None of that would matter much if the material could withstand the scrutiny. Unfortunately, Menken (who got famous from the adorable and unpretentious "Little Shop of Horrors") is working in international-generic overdrive here. And Rice (whose lyrics gave Andrew Lloyd Webber much-needed edge in the "Superstar" and "Evita" days) finds few opportunities to fuse his offbeat acidity with the inspiration of the psalms.

Their score is square and static, with some strong melismatic choral work and brief infusions of stirring Oriental modality, but more gallumphing explosions of Bible-epic movie music. Their idea of thematic development these days is to repeat lines, louder.

Similarly, the cast contains a number of strong Broadway veterans, but they are relying on all the same microphone whisperings and pop-recitative croonings heard up and down (often by the same performers) in the most tedious Broadway mega-hits. Marcus Lovett has a vibrant, showy falsetto as David, the young shepherd who unites Israel's tribes and falls for the seductions of power.

Stephen Bogardus, as narrator and instigator Joab, sings, "This is the time for you, you have it all, you can do anything, you are standing tall"--which sounds more than a little like "This Is the Moment" at "Jekyll and Hyde." Alice Ripley's sensuous Bathsheba gets a sort of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" ballad. Judy Kuhn, as first-wife Michal, must keep finding new ways to apply her burnished voice to redundant lyrics about her hunter coming home; Anthony Galde does a good teen-idol rebellion as son Absalom. Bill Nolte's Goliath looks like a Viking in a beer commercial.

Everyone works very hard, but we cannot help suspecting that Disney wants to supplant Israel's poet king with "The Lion King" as soon as possible. A three-day "Hercules World Premiere Weekend" will introduce the animated film on the gorgeous stage June 14, and the theatrical production of "Lion King" opens here in the fall. Downstairs in the lobby that was once the men's smoking room is a quote from "Twelfth Night" that reads: "I would rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad." Under the circumstances, that seems right.

* "King David," New Amsterdam Theatre, 42nd Street west of 7th Avenue. Through Friday. (212) 307-4100

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