What about the lion?
If you’ve seen the likable 2003 family movie “Secondhand Lions,” you might wonder when the mangy, old jungle cat who figures in the title will turn up in this brassy, hardworking and overstuffed musical version of the film. Now at the 5th Avenue Theatre (after weeks of previews, it runs until Oct. 6), this is the 15th new musical the company has premiered in the last decade. Will it be the ninth to reach Broadway?
It gives little away to reveal that no lion, real or imagined, prowls the stage in this fairly lavish production scored by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (“First Date”), and freely adapted from Tim McCanlies’ screenplay by Rupert Holmes (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood”).
But a lot of swashbuckling antics, schmaltzy sentiment and impressive multimedia effects have been added to pump up the G-rated tale of a neglected little boy and the cantankerous great-uncles (the other aged lions) who reluctantly become his loving surrogate parents.
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The musical is flush with A-list, Tony Award-honored Broadway talent. And New Line Cinema (producer of the film) has backed the glossy outing handsomely.
The results can be very entertaining. But the show suffers from overload, harsh amplification that coarsens voices and muffles lyrics, and a split personality. It is at once a wisecracking, action-packed fairy tale in the Disney mode, and a more sugary take on a low-key tale in which two generations rage against aging, and come of age.
It’s that second identity that seems out of balance. “Secondhand Lions” opens with a twangy ode (“The Wild Lion Boys”) sung by a one-time cowboy chorus. Then comes a brash tune (“The Fort Worth College of Court Reporting”), belted to the rafters by Walter’s floozy mom Mae (Seattle’s Kendra Kassebaum) — who then takes a powder.
Forlorn 11-year old Walter (impressive young Johnny Rabe) expresses his yearnings for a real home in the articulate ballad “Just Right.” So why are the most original characters, great-uncles Garth and Hub (chiseled admirably by Broadway favorites Gregg Edelman and Mark Jacoby) consigned mainly to crusty wisecracks and amusing grunts in Act 1? Why is their snappy duet of sibling rivalry and solidarity (“Don’t Count Us Out”) delayed until nearly the end?
An added character, Jane (plucky Sophia Anne Caruso), an irritating/cute little “brainiac” who becomes Walter’s friend, gets more of the spotlight than the coots.
But the lion’s share of “Secondhand Lions” is devoted to colorful tales Garth tells the wide-eyed Walter about the uncles’ (alleged) past. Holmes’ book greatly expands the exploits of these soldiers of fortune into vivacious, Technicolor spoofs of 1950s sand-and-sword flicks. And they’re a lot of fun.
Jason Danieley has a grand time camping it up in turban and goatee as the smoothy-villain Sultan. He crosses sabers with the strapping young Hub (Kevin Earley) and Garth (Jared Michael Brown), who try to rescue the beauty (and apparent martial-arts expert) Samira (strident Jenny Powers) from the sultan’s clutches.
Weiner and Zachary excel at witty lyrics and give Danieley the show’s cleverest songs, like “Sand,” an account of the sultan’s fiefdom that pops with intricate wordplay.
The skillful director Scott Schwartz and choreographer Joshua Bergasse adorn the fantasy scenes with gyrating belly dancers and leaping, sword-wielding minions. Eugene Lee’s splendid sets and Howell Binkley’s first-rate lighting are enriched with Jeff Sugg’s projections, which ingeniously create the illusion of live actors emerging from animated backgrounds.
Abruptly back in rural Texas, “Secondhand Lions” sort of glorifies gun-toting machismo, in a folksy and unthreatening way. But the musical goes mushy in the end, with the syrupy anthem “Worth Believin’ In” exhorting you to believe in true romance and the power of fantasy. And the uncles’ last hurrah (in a cool prop biplane) is needlessly turned into an act of valor.
There’s a lot to build on in “Secondhand Lions.” And there’s a lot of rebalancing and refocusing left to do if this cumbersome musical moves on and further develops.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org