John Kander is calling his new musical “The Landing,” but it could just as well be called “Andra” or “The Brick,” which are the titles of the two other short musicals that comprise this triptych on the making of one’s own family.
“The Landing” works well as an umbrella title, however, precisely because it makes no promises to be a musical. In fact, “The Landing,” which opened Wednesday at the Vineyard Theater, sounds like the title of a short story published in the New Yorker, and that kind of understatement is what you get on stage (for at least two-thirds of the evening). In other words, “The Landing” is definitely not destined for Broadway, and from what’s evidenced on this Off Broadway stage, that lack of commercial intent is what this show’s creative team wants.
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Is this the same John Kander of “Chicago” and “Cabaret,” and more recently “Curtains” and “The Scottsboro Boys,” all of which he created with his longtime lyricist Fred Ebb, who passed away before the latter two titles were first staged? Kander & Ebb defined razzmatazz, and at their heart, their musicals (even the one about black men falsely accused of rape) are about showbiz.
Kander now has a new book writer and lyricist, Greg Pierce, and “The Landing” (their first collaboration) heralds a whole new, exciting direction for the composer. Family has replaced the third-rate vaudevillians, cabaret singers and other hangers-on of the theater, and in each of the three musicals that comprise “The Landing,” characters seek to create a family outside the one they were born into – but they do so with the same desperation and fervor that characters sought the spotlight in all those Kander & Ebb shows.
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The title “Andra” refers to a constellation that a carpenter (Paul Anthony Stewart) and a young boy (Frankie Seratch) find in the sky. Right off the bat, Kander and Pierce break a few cardinal rules of Broadway musicals: There’s no production number to establish that it’s a musical, there’s no big “what I want” song to drive the hero’s quest. Amid the dialogue, Kander throws out the occasional motif for lines like “beta-carotene will save your eyes from all those books,” in this case, sung by the mother (Julia Murney).
When the songs finally arrive, they intrigue more than they grab our attention. The carpenter’s stories are not unlike those told by the father in Broadway’s current “Big Fish.” But director Walter Bobbie trusts Kander and Pierce’s material, not the scenery and costumes, to do the talking. We never get to meet essential characters like the boy’s father and the carpenter’s daughter. And what exactly are those pink dots on the back of the kid’s neck?
Like so many great short stories, “Andra” doesn’t really come into focus until the final, startling revelation.
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“The Landing” is the third piece, and is more conventional. Two gay men (Stewart and David Hyde Pierce, who narrates “Andra”) adopt an adolescent boy (Seratch) who is more traveled, better dressed, and neater than either of them. Suffice to say it plays like a vintage episode of “The Twilight Zone,” and Seratch’s pulls off a transformation near the end that’s downright scary.
“The Brick” is the very, very wild card sandwiched between “Andra” and “The Landing.” A woman (Murney) falls in love with a brick from the wall of the St. Valentine Day’s Massacre, and her attachment to it results in dire consequences for her husband (Stewart) and nephew (Seratch). David Hyde Pierce plays the brick, attired in gangster stripes, spats and fedora; and anyone who has ever accused him of only playing variations on his neurotic “Frasier” nerd needs to see this “Dick Tracy” cartoon come to life.
Greg Pierce’s lyrics are comprised of easy rhymes, but they’re always insightful and often funny. Kander’s signature riffs and easy melodies are very much in evidence – the underscoring throughout is gorgeous – but the music now serves the dreams of very private people. It’s a brave departure for this revered composer, and it’s good news that he and Greg Pierce are “working on several new projects,” according to the Playbill.