If Stephen Sondheim could write a musical about a painting, why shouldn’t Gavin Creel write a musical about several paintings (plus a few sculptures)?
Back when Sondheim wrote his masterpieces and he wasn’t exactly the darling of the critics or the audiences, his detractors on Shubert Alley (and there were many) kept complaining about the subject matter of his shows, especially before those shows had actually opened. For instance, “Sweeney Todd”: “He’s writing a musical about cannibalism!”; or “Pacific Overtures”: “He’s writing a musical about Admiral Perry and the Westernization of Japan!”; and, of course, “Sunday in the Park with George”: “He’s writing a musical about Georges Seurat and pointillism!”
Not to be outdone by Sondheim, Creel, who won a Tony for playing Cornelius in the Broadway revival of “Hello, Dolly!” starring Bette Midler, has written the book, as well as the songs, for his first stage musical, about the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Walk on Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice” opened Monday at the MCC Theater. Oh yes, and Creel is also the star of his show.
But back to Sondheim. The song “Color and Light” from “Sunday in the Park” reminded me a lot of the song “Scattered” in “Walk on Through.” The one song is about pointillism, as it’s depicted in Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and the other song is about abstract expressionism, as depicted in Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm Number 30.” Forget about Creel being a museum novice; here and throughout “Walk on Through,” he shows himself to be a master lyricist with his very first musical.
The major difference between “Color and Light” and “Scattered” isn’t so much quality; rather, it’s what the two songs tell us. Sondheim writes about an artist (and his muse) and the creation of a masterpiece. Creel writes about looking at a masterpiece and how it makes him feel. The big difference, in the end, is drama. Looking at a work of art is far less dramatic than creating a work of art. As subject matters go, even Sondheim never tackled a subject as resistant to musical-theater realization as merely walking through a museum. For that matter, Sondheim also never wrote the book for and then starred in his own musical. Amazingly, Creel does not direct “Walk on Through.” Linda Goodrich handles that task, and she does so with great style.
Creel’s 17 songs additionally have plenty of support from David Bengali’s projection design, which dissects and blows up many famous and lesser-known works of art to Brobdingnaggian proportions. Art historians may be horrified. Theatergoers will be thrilled at the effect.
As the title would suggest, “Walk on Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice” is autobiographical, and Creel doesn’t really have much of an excuse for never having visited the Met before the museum commissioned him this musical than “it’s on the Upper East Side.” That’s quite a confession, since Creel did make his Broadway debut as an actor (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”) over 20 years ago.
Beyond the “Upper East Side” comment, Creel’s show does not begin auspiciously. Famous paintings from the Met collection are projected behind him on the back wall of I. Javier Ameijeiras’s black box set, the four-piece band split into pairs and positioned off to the sides with Creel and his baby grand piano placed center stage. Like the museum virgin that he confesses to be, Creel uses these paintings to make autobiographical points. He hails from Ohio, so he shows us John Steuart Curry’s “Wisconsin Landscape,” because if you’ve seen one Midwestern state you’ve seen them all. Born in 1978 with a showbiz song in his heart, Creel travels to New York City as Bengali’s projections treat us to a visual tour of paintings by Thomas Hart Benton that takes a detour through the Great Depression.
Creel sings more than he talks, and that is a very good thing. His pop tunes often feature an infectious hook or they grab you with their driving rhythmic structure. Better yet, his lyrics are superb, capturing feelings and moods and thoughts with ingenious rhymes.
“Walk on Through” is at its best when Creel chucks his life story to delve into his very idiosyncratic yet universal feelings and ideas about art. Like, how looking at lots of perfect marble buttocks and pecs can be a great aphrodisiac. Or, what happens when you fall in love with the guy in Vesvolod Mikhailovich Garshin’s “Illia Repin” who turned out to kill himself? Or, how two people (Creel and Ryan Vasquez) can harbor such different reactions to Edward Hopper’s “From Williamsburg Bridge”?
Less wonderful is Creel’s need to satisfy modern musical-theater taste, which demands a caterwauling 11 o’clock female-empowerment number, sung by Sasha Allen, that analyzes “Judith With the Head of Holofernes,” by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
That last sentence probably says it all. “Walk on Through” is a very promising first musical coming from a songwriter-book writer novice. Maybe for his sophomore effort Creel can take on a simpler assignment — like stringing together a bunch of fairy tales or telling a showbiz story in reverse.