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Harry Connick Jr.'s musical battles anemia

The diagnosis is in for Harry Connick Jr.'s Broadway musical about a psychiatrist undergoing a psychic meltdown: It needs more time on the couch.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The diagnosis is in for Harry Connick Jr.'s Broadway musical about a psychiatrist undergoing a psychic meltdown: It needs more time on the couch.

A completely reworked "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," which opened Sunday at the St. James Theatre, has some glorious voices, brilliantly trippy sets and some nifty moments, but its plot doesn't quite sing and it spends too much time oddly listless.

Michael Mayer, the director behind "Spring Awakening" and "American Idiot," has reconceived the 1965 original, which had a score by Burton Lane and a book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. It was then made into a 1970 film with Barbra Streisand.

What Mayer has done can't be called tinkering. Virtually nothing has remained of the original but the vague premise, meaning this new version is both wedded to the past and yet unmoored from it as well. It's a brave move but prompts the question of why even bother?

One reason is the songs, which are sumptuous and lovely. Mayer has supplemented the original's musicals tunes — "Come Back to Me," "What Did I Have That I Don't Have," "She Isn't You" and "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" — with "Love With All the Trimmings" and "Go to Sleep" from the movie. He's even thrown in Lerner and Lane songs from the film "Royal Wedding," such as "Ev'ry Night at Seven." While luscious, the different tones and plug-in feel make the show slightly disjointed.

Mayer has teamed up with Peter Parnell to hollow out the weird 1965 tale about an impossible love triangle and place it in 1974, adding a gender-bending twist to the hippie-meets-Freud head trip.

In the original, a widowed psychologist hypnotizes a young woman to help her quit smoking but discovers that his patient in a previous life was a 1940s jazz singer — and promptly falls in love with the long-gone woman. In the update, the psychologist falls in love with the jazz singer while treating a gay man, turning this reputable scientist into an advocate for reincarnation and risking his career.

Connick, in a suit and retro-cool glasses, plays the lovesick psychologist Mark Bruckner with a detached air, like he's doing a musical while waiting for a bus. When he sings, though, he comes alive and his caramel sound — gooey and warm — will leave you swooning.

Jessie Mueller plays his love interest Melinda, but unfortunately, she doesn't always swoon. Mueller is spunky, funny, nails the mannerisms of the '40s and holds notes wonderfully, but the musical's book means the chemistry between her and Connick is oddly filtered. As it is, Mueller offers the first real welcome jolt of electricity in this show when she winningly sings "Ev'ry Night at Seven" — but that's already well into Act 2.

David Turner plays the gay florist David with a bit too much self-conscious mournfulness, which thankfully dissipates when he sings, especially in a rousing version of "What Did I Have That I Don't Have." Three others — Kerry O'Malley as the doctor's stern colleague, Drew Gehling as David's lover Warren, and Sarah Stiles as David's funny friend Muriel — are first class.

The new version with its gay-straight frisson certainly adds complexity but it sits oddly in the remake's time period, only a year after the American Psychiatric Association deleted homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses.

The lyrics mostly hold up well — "Freud" is rhymed with "avoid" in one song and the Mets are made fun of in another — and some even have an inadvertent nod to homoeroticism, as in the end of the Act 1 song "Melinda" which has the doctor sing the lyric "You're a mere dream, Melinda/Out for a gay little spin."

One of the best things about the production is Christine Jones' sets, which are hypnotic and playful, especially when paired with Kevin Adams' lighting. They combine for vibrant colors highlighting a theme of checkerboards and circles.

Jones' small set parts fly on and off humorously, she cleverly uses multiple pots of vibrant plants, and has created moving horizontal and vertical panels that cinematically intertwine. Her use of bold 1970s-inspired trippy straight lines and hippie flowers reflects in many ways the push-pull of a scientist undergoing a psychoneurotic fantasy.

The psychiatrist's own leather couch becomes an elevator between time periods and even Jones' pillows have fun with the love triangle — an embroidered "M" on one stands for "Mark" but is flipped upside-down to also represent a "W" for "Warren."

Catherine Zuber's costumes are in on the jokes, with plenty of hippie-wear such as wide collars and bell bottoms and tops that reflect the plot's focus on flowers. Zuber also scores big when reaching for the '40s and Mueller is absolutely radiant in her silk, big band gowns. Why Connick seems addicted to his blue suit is a mystery.

The musical's best moments, not surprisingly, are when all the good elements join together, as in a showstopping moment when all three leads dance together, a rousing rendition of "Come Back to Me" by Connick and Gehling, and the group number "When I'm Being Born Again," all with great choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter. The trouble is those moments are few and far between. On a clear day, you can see a better musical hiding underneath, waiting for yet another revision.