Nr 464: Oh, Brother!(1981)

27 Jan

Oh, Brother!
Broadway 1981, 3 perf.

Music: Michael Valenti
Lyrics: Donald Driver
Book: Donald Driver based on William Shakespeare’s The Comedy Of Errors (1591) which in turn was based on Plautus (254 B.C. – 182 B.C) play Menaechmi.

Tag line: Musical Comedy breaks out in the Middle East!

OH, BROTHER! takes place during a revolution in an oil rich Middle Eastern country on the Persian Gulf in a quaint resort town where its populace of merchants and revolutionaries mix Eastern tradition with Western consumerism. Into this volatile environment unwittingly stumbles a sweet old American named Lew. He is immediately surrounded by revolutionaries demanding he explain his presence. And the show starts with him telling his story:
Years ago, travelling in the Middle East with his wife, Lillian, she gave birth to identical twin boys. At the same time a dear black woman also gave birth to identical twin boys, but she died. Lew and Lillian adopted the orphaned twin boys to raise as brothers to their own. And for some inexplicable reason they only give each pair of twins one name so we have 2 boys named Habim and 2 named Mousada. When Lillian was well they booked separate flights home, separate flights to lessen the chance an air disaster might orphan any of their infant sons. Each parent took one twin from each set and departed for home. Disaster struck! The plane on which Lillian and her two charges were flying was hijacked to Iraq.
Lew tried to find them, but he never saw Lillian or the two boys again.
When Lew’s two boys grew to manhood, curious about their lost twins they prevailed upon old Lew to let them search the world to find them. Lew consented.
That was two years ago. Now they are lost too and he is searching for them.
And now the real story begins: of course Lew’s sons are in the same town at the same time as their father (unbeknownst to him) and, as faith would have it, it is in this very town their lost twin brothers live…

This leads to a series of mistaken identities where nobody knows which brother is which (they have the same name, remember) and that in turn leads to wrongful beatings, a near-seduction, the arrest of of one brother, false accusations of infidelity, theft, madness, and lots and lots of confusion and hilarious situations and a big chase. But all is solved in the end and they even find their long lost mother Lillian.

Well, that sounds like it could be a lot of fun, right? And it is quite funny for a half hour or so, but the whole ”mistaken identity” thing gets old and very predictable rather fast, and what’s left is a loooong wait for the cast to start the finale.
Thankfully the music is good. Some songs are even very good. And that saves the show from being a total waste. We have an old fashioned opening number that sets your toes tapping along (We Love An Old Story), a beautiful quartet for the two pair of twins (I Too The World), a romantic anthem that sounds like something Rodgers & Hammerstein could have written (That’s Him) and a very funny and definitely not politically correct song (How Do You Want Me).

And there was so much talent on the stage: Judy Kaye (the Phantom of the Opera, Mama Mia), Harry Groener (Cats, Crazy for You) and David James Carroll (Chess, Grand Hotel), just to mention a few of the more well known, who all went on to bigger and better things. It’s the book that let’s this show down. And the staging. And the sets. And the choreography. And the costumes. And… well, everything.

But as I mentioned before the music is worth a listening. Unfortunately you can’t find it on Spotify but maybe on Apple Music? But if you listen to the cast album you’ll get a couple of bonus songs. They probably recorded the album during try outs for two of the songs didn’t make it to the final show, and they’re good songs. A 60s flavored rock song called My World’s Coming’s Unwrapped and a funny ensemble number simply called Revolution. You could hear a little from the latter in the Entr’acte. Now, if you’ve read about this show somewhere else you may find my last statement a bit confusing: how could there be an Entr’acte as the show was in one act. Well, now it is, but during try outs it wasn’t. So therefore there was an entr’acte. But that one is not included on the cast album. Sorry, but the musical geek in me just had to point this out…

This isn’t the first musical version of The Comedy Of Errors, that was The Boys from Syracuse (1938) with book by George Abbott, lyrics by Lorenz Hart and music by Richard Rodgers. That show had the same problems as this one has, as far as the mistaken identity plot goes, but is all in all a better put together show and the music… Oh, the score is a real classic. You can read more about The Boys on this blog, search for entry no: 198.

This wasn’t Donald Drivers first attempt at musicalizing a Shakespeare play, he made Twelfth Night into the rock musical Your Own Thing in 1968. That show was a hit. Read about it at no: 438.

The composer of Oh. Brother! Michael Valenti, was actually one of the performers on Your Own Thing and he was also the understudy for the lead in the original Broadway production of How To Succeed in Business Without Even Trying (1961)

Press:
”Nonstop zaniness with perpetual motion belly dancers, burlesque turns, bad puns, gun toting Arab revolutionary chorus boys and other assorted sight gags, from a sneaker shod camel to a self propelled skateboard.”
– Women’s Wear Daily

… ‘‘Oh, Brother!” may be the only current Broadway musical that is discreetly amplified: we hear music instead of an electronic buzz. Let other producers note that this show’s sound system was designed by Richard Fitzgerald.
The rest of ”Oh, Brother!” – its book, lyrics, direction and ”staging” – is the work of Donald Driver. With the exception of the lyrics, which are adequate, Mr. Driver’s contributions encase the show in cement. It is his idea to reset a Plautus-Shakespeare longlost brothers farce in the contemporary Middle East, and a most misguided idea it is.
What’s funny about the Middle East today? Not much – unless you want to be completely tasteless. … but why bother to set a show in a region where there’s no room, right now, for humor? Thanks to its concept, ‘‘Oh, Brother!” is crippled before it even begins. Because he can’t bite any satirical teeth into his topical setting, Mr. Driver loads the show instead with hoary double-entendre gags and stale parodies of Hollywood’s old Arabian Nights movies. … some of them look and sound as though they were culled from 15-year-old back issues of Mad magazine. 

Mr. Driver doesn’t know how to pace or build his convoluted story of mistaken identities – it’s all conveyed frenetically in the same numbing shriek. The direction is of the same style. Mr. Driver has staged this show at a speed that kills. ”Oh, Brother!” runs one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, and the actors are running the whole time. Energy is one thing -a relay race is another. Whiplash direction, much of it modeled on ”Three Stooges” comedies, is not a substitute for well-written fun.
– Frank Rich, The New York Times

Videos:

Tv review + We Love An Old Story + How Do You Want Me
A Loud and Funny Song

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