‘Lies and Legends’ provides too few smiles
Harry Chapin was a singer-songwriter of modest accomplishments, his claim to artistic prominence based on two hit songs: the melancholy “Taxi,” about a chance meeting between former lovers, and “Cat’s in the Cradle,” a really depressing tale about a father with no time for his son. Perhaps the other noteworthy twist to Chapin’s life is that it ended young. Chapin was 38 when he died in a car accident on Long Island in 1982.If there are other good reasons to delve deeper into the Chapin songbook, they are not provided in “Lies and Legends: The Musical Stories of Harry Chapin.” The musical revue was arranged by two of Chapin’s brothers shortly after his death, possibly as a tribute, possibly as a means of keeping alive the music and memory. But the current Aspen Theatre in the Park (ATIP) production, staged 20 years after the show’s creation, shows that those purposes have run their course. “Lies and Legends” is marked by a sense of purposelessness. In ATIP’s production, directed by Tracy Friedman, the emphasis is on Chapin as storyteller. It is not a point made subtly; the five actors, when not portraying various Chapin characters, sing out again and again about “the story of a life.” As songwriters go, Chapin was story-oriented, and some of his story-songs were – and are – worth following from beginning to end. But there are just too few of these on which to hang a full-length play, and so “Lies and Legends” stoops to include fillers like “Bananas,” which comes off as dated children’s entertainment. Even “W.O.L.D,” a hit in 1973, has aged poorly: Asking an audience to embrace a nostalgic tale 30 years later is placing too much burden on the value of nostalgia.
An ATIP flyer notes the promise of Chapin’s songs as a marker of the times: “Chapin wrote of the lives and loves and dreams of an entire generation.” But that is wishful thinking. Nothing in “Lies and Legends” brings into focus the issues and ideas of the 1970s. Even in his day, Chapin wasn’t confronting contemporary society much; his songs were about more timeless concerns (a compliment, I think).Many of Chapin’s songs are, indeed, thematically linked. He sang about dreamers and dreams (most of them crushed or aborted), and the gaps between ideals and reality. But “Lies and Legends” makes no convincing case that Chapin explored these themes in a way that merits two acts and 20-plus songs worthy of our attention. There is a vast difference between the smile elicited by a song like “Dance Band on the Titanic,” heard by chance on the car radio, and keeping the dial tuned to two hours of all Chapin, all the time.Apart from the material, Aspen Theatre in the Park’s staging makes little sense. The actors spend enormous amounts of time wandering, posing, dancing around the stage, looking for something to do when they’re not singing.
None of this is to knock the actors. They sing well. Neil David Seibel in particular takes the opportunities to ramp up the emotion and even comedy. (Michael Arkin forgets his lines here and there, and one can’t judge him too harshly for trying.) Much of the audience, in fact, cheered, and I chalk this up to the undeniable charm of live theater as practiced by talented performers. Laurence Olivier could have read a laundry list onstage and earned decent reviews.The problem here is the premise. Harry Chapin was a moderate star in his day, and there’s a reason his work, apart from a song or two, hasn’t been rediscovered by succeeding generations.It should be noted that David McClendon, ATIP’s new artistic director, was not responsible for programming “Lies and Legends.” McClendon has said he was brought in to lead ATIP into a bigger future, one where the organization is a year-round company with a regional reputation. It should be interesting to see what material McClendon selects for next year and beyond, because “Lies and Legends” is not a play on which to build those aspirations.
The words of Chapin that most stuck with me: “A full-time consideration of another endeavor might be in order.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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