The musical adaptation of Secondhand Lions is better than it has any right to be, I suppose. The new work from First Date writers Alan Zachary & Michael Weiner is having its world premiere at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, and though it’s a sloppy pastiche that seems to be constantly swinging for the fences with a stable of overwrought numbers, it’s also a generally amiable experience thanks to a game cast, fleet direction by Scott Schwartz, and a couple of sequences that are actually as clever as they think they are.
But I guess the most pertinent question is, “Why?” Surely this must be some of the least deserving source material to get another look onstage in recent years. The 2003 film isn’t actively terrible, but it is relentlessly mawkish, turning two great actors into kindly and gruff cartoons in service of a sickly-sweet dose of manufactured nostalgia. The musical plays right along to that same tune, although Rupert Holmes’ book makes a few changes, including the addition of a second annoying moppet for a proto-love interest. It’s just what Secondhand Lions was missing!
Gregg Edelman and Mark Jacoby star as Garth and Hub, reclusive brothers who live on a remote Texas farm and who reluctantly take in their preteen great-nephew Walter (Johnny Rabe) when his borderline-deadbeat mother, Mae (Kendra Kassebaum), drops him off on their front porch. Rumor has it the brothers possess a secret fortune and Mae is hoping Walter can get her access to the riches. Instead, he eventually melts his great-uncles’ hearts, learns a thing or two about being a man, and hears wild stories about their past in the French Foreign Legion, replete with forbidden romance with a beautiful princess (Jenny Powers) and a longstanding feud with a nefarious sultan (Jason Danieley).
Both Holmes’ book and Zachary & Weiner’s songs struggle to establish much connective tissue between the farm and the fantastical flashbacks, separating them into discrete sequences and papering over the holes by offhandedly questioning the truth of the past in the present. There’s an interesting germ of an idea here — that reminiscence, even if “true” in one sense, can still be a way of lying to ourselves — but of course, a musical adaptation of a family movie isn’t terribly interested in philosophical considerations of memory.
Of course that’s perfectly fine; one just wishes there were more here than some stereotypical Arabian Nights spoofing, nuance-free characterizations where everyone has a heart of gold if you look deep enough, and the deeply forgettable score, where numbers like “Unlike Anyone I’ve Ever Known” and “Fly Into a Better Tomorrow” strain so hard to be showstoppers, all you see is the strain. Frankly, that tone is set from the beginning: the second number, “The Fort Worth College of Court Reporting” gives poor Kendra Kassebaum a ridiculously wordy, nothing-but-exposition mess, and the result is cringeworthy.
Thankfully, director Schwartz has made sure the ensemble snaps with energy, and winning performances abound — Edelman does wise uncle very well and Danieley is able to sell a fair amount of his lame jokes as the sultan. As Walter, Rabe has an appealing unvarnished enthusiasm for his role and a truly great voice, which he wastes no time in showcasing with introduction number “Just Right.” And among the mess, there’s actually one sequence that approaches greatness — as young Hub (Kevin Earley) and his love traverse the globe to escape the sultan, they’re confronted by a host of different assassins, and the number’s “Looney Tunes”-style gag that involves inspired use of projected images is pretty fun.
The 5th’s commitment to producing new musicals is absolutely admirable, but tired retreads of properties that weren’t all that great to begin with isn’t exactly the direction one hopes they would go in. The 5th prides itself on frequently sending new works to Broadway, but I’d be surprised if Secondhand Lions makes that jump anytime soon.
Secondhand Lions is onstage through Oct. 6. Tickets are available for purchase online.