Never mind The Flamingo Kid.
The Flamingo Girl is the one who really grabs our attention – at least for Act One of this musical version of the 1984 hit film at Hartford Stage Company.
Karla Samuels is one of the most extraordinary characters that musical theater has seen in a long, long time.
Not that she’s called The Flamingo Girl in THE FLAMINGO KID. She’s always Karla, a teenager who’s spending the summer of ’63 at Long Island’s exclusive El Flamingo Beach Club.
Karla is quite beautiful with a terrific figure and a demeanor that suggests sophistication. So the moment that lower-middle-class teen Jeffrey Winnick sees her, his eyes go into leering and lusting overdrive.
From our witnessing thousands of such boy-girl situations on stage and screen, we fully expect that Karla, inured to non-stop admiration and devotion from males, will never deign to acknowledge parvenu Jeffrey. We anticipate that at the very best if he asks her a question she might answer with a quick and sharp “Yes” or “No.” To accentuate his worthlessness in her eyes, she’d even wait to respond for a few seconds to let him know that she’s doing him a Big Favor by tossing him a syllable.
Not Karla, the wonderful anomaly of a girl who isn’t a haughty hottie. She’s as lovely on the inside as she is on the outside. This is beauty that’s far more than skin deep; it inhabits every piece of brain tissue in this considerate person who’s concerned with everyone’s feelings.
And Samantha Massell plays her with the perfect style and sensitivity.
Jeffrey asks Karla what book she’s reading and she responds “The Feminine Mystique” (which was brand-new in early ‘63). He utters a few remarks that are sensitive to the feminist cause. Too bad that they come across as mere lip service to win fair lady. The Karla that bookwriter-lyricist Robert L. (A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER) Freedman has enhanced from screenplay writers (non-related) Neal Marshall and Garry Marshall would be too smart to fall for such apple-polishing.
So we get no solid reason why Karla would choose Jeffrey as a beau. “I’m a dork, I’m a clod,” he sings, and, my, does he have a point as embodied by Jimmy Brewer. True, anybody can be physically attracted to anybody for whatever inexplicable reason; the problem here is that the show stresses the long-borne-out truism that girls mature faster than boys.
So what makes Jeffrey the person to whom she says “I never met a boy like you before” and whom she defends to others by saying “He’s special.” No, he isn’t. Not even for a casual summer fling is he a logical choice.
As impressed as we are with Karla, we have even more respect at the end of Act One. She’s utterly appalled when she sees how uncaring and insensitive Jeffrey is to his loving parents. Karla is as furious with him as Blanche DuBois is with Mitch and Stanley when she says “Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable.”
So why in Act Two does Karla indeed forgive Jeffrey all too quickly and without valid reason? It’s one of the issues that Freedman needs to address in this otherwise often satisfying musical.
After all, Jeffrey – The Flamingo Kid — is supposed to be Our Hero. Many of us who grew up in not-so-hot neighborhoods will understand the frustration that the son of Brooklyn plumber Arthur Winnick and housewife Ruth Winnick feels. As Jeffrey sings in his opening number “Every day you wish you could get away but where you gonna go?”
So when he and buddies crash the members-only El Flamingo, it’s Valhalla to them. It’s “where the chicks are tanned” and “the Rubinsteins become Robinsons.” Jeffrey is case-closed seduced the moment he has his first frozen drink topped by a tiny bamboo green umbrella.
Valhalla becomes more heavenly to Jeffrey after he turns out to be the only one on the premises who knows how to get a stalled car on the road again. With the parking supervisor suddenly needing an attendant to replace one who just left, Jeffrey is offered a job parking cars. Wow!
The “Wow!” is woe to his father, who’s worked hard to get him a summer job in an accountant’s office. He insists that Jeffrey start thinking about his future and Brooklyn College.
No, all he can think about is El Flamingo. One day he comes home and reports “The rain killed us.” Note the “us,” which tells his parents that he’s part of something and, by extension, they are not.
As smitten as Jeffrey is with Karla, he reserves his complete hero worship for Phil Brody, who owns successful car dealerships and plays a hell of a game of gin rummy. Suddenly Jeffrey is the son Phil never had, and Phil is the father Jeffrey doesn’t have.
Arthur Winnick is enduring a losing battle and he knows it; what he doesn’t know is the right way to handle it. Arthur becomes over-possessive and mistakenly feels he has every right and privilege to bark commands at his only son. THE FLAMINGO KID winds up having more than one character learn a painful lesson and then profiting from it in a tear-inducing finale.
That’s the show’s main strength. Theatergoers will witness Jeffrey making the youthful mistakes that may not necessarily be the ones they made. Still, they’ll see that the pits into which Jeffrey falls are analogous to the ones into which they plunged during their naïve youth.
Freedman is secure enough to have these people sing that they’re “happy and gay” without any double meaning applied to the latter adjective. Yes, the term was already in use in some circles, but not necessarily with middle-agers in Our Crowd. This is in keeping with leaving the show in the film’s summer of 1963 when America was comparatively innocent, only a matter of weeks before President Kennedy was assassinated.
This era also gave composer Scott (GREY GARDENS) Frankel the chance to do pastiches that reference the cha-cha, samba, bossa nova and conga. Frankel’s “My Cabana Boy” could have been a genuine Top Ten hit in 1963 – and inoffensive enough for adults to approve and appreciate (in an attempt to convince themselves they weren’t getting old). A longer-than-usual amount of time passes before we get a genuine love song, but “Under the Stars” is worth the wait.
Choreographer Denis Jones has lovingly replicated of-the-era dances. But why relegate The Twist – the ruling dance of the day – to just a few upstage seconds while important dialogue is taking center stage?
Hartford Stage artistic director Darko Tresnjak has given the show an ultra-slick production that belies its two-and-a-half-hour length. He’s also found the necessary monies so that designers Alexander Dodge (sets) and Linda Cho (costumes) can give the show a snazzy production. It’s not every musical that offers its audiences four on-stage cars, including a pink Cadillac that recalls the days when such automobiles were the length of the sign over the Winter Garden. (Fittingly, Arthur drives an Edsel.)
In staging the show, Tresnjak gives those tiny details that make directorial differences. Watch Jeffrey, Arthur and Ruth during the song “A Plumber Knows” which takes place at the dinner table. They slam utensils, salt shakers and the like at the end of the musical line and on the number’s button. Later, Jeffrey throws a towel over his shoulder right on time to the song’s final note. In a musical, such moves are as important as accent marks on French words.
Nobody’s perfect. Tresnjak goes for an easy laugh by having chorus members crop up out of nowhere to echo a lyric when they aren’t even in the room where the song is sung.
That Tresnjak hasn’t found a way to engage the audience in the show’s many important card games is understandable; what director has? Card games are too small for even a regional theater stage; they don’t have the ability to pull in the audience who can’t see who holds what and how close anyone is to victory.
Tresnjak could have found a better solution for a scene where Phil literally gives Jeffrey the silk shirt off his back as a present. In doing so, Phil reveals that he’s wearing a girdle. No, he’d hide that from the kid. More and better comedy could be mined from Phil’s working hard to make sure that Jeffrey doesn’t see that he’s strapped-in.
The most damaging decision of all comes in the scene where Jeremy’s frustration with his father leads to his storming out of the house and vowing never to return. His mother, with whom he has no quarrel, is standing there, but he doesn’t go over to kiss her goodbye. If we don’t have enough reasons not to like Jeremy, here’s yet another.
Tresnjak hasn’t erred a whit in casting. Brewer doesn’t embellish the nervous teen angst the way we’ve seen in too many recent musicals.
Adam Heller excels as Arthur, who shows the dignity of the common man. He’s ostensibly as hard as the steel pipes he installs and yet he gains our sympathies when he says what many a father has either noticed or been forced to believe: “My son thinks he’s better than me.”
Liz Larsen doesn’t remotely overdo the role of the concerned and haimish Ruth who works hard not to take sides against the two men they love. When washing dishes, she does give one plate a look that says “I wonder if this is the millionth one.”
She also gets a song called “Not for All the Money in the World” where she insists that she wouldn’t trade her marriage to a plumber for a richer man. This kind of message is hard for audiences to believe, but in lesser hands, it would be impossible. Larsen squelches our doubts.
“Not for All the Money in the World” is a cliché which becomes more of a problem when the next song is “(That’s How) The Cookie Crumbles.” Freedman even has Phil’s wife Phyllis admit outright in the lyric that the sentiment “is a cliché.”
Freedman does include in the song a good truism about life that young people have trouble understanding let alone predicting: “One mistake and down it tumbles.” Lesli Margherita is no less than phenomenal in delivering the song as she is during the rest of the show. She starts off as the nouveau-riche bitch who doesn’t remotely wind up winning the bad-guy race. When she predicts that Karla’s husband-to-be will eventually have an affair, we see she’s talking about her own marriage.
Marc Kudisch is bull’s eye on target as Phil, who displays that power is powerful as well corrupting. His strong voice matches the character, and he’s superb in the way he delivers a lyric that references some of Snow White’s seven dwarfs.
When he brags about his 23-inch color TV that get can five channels clearly and has a remote control, he does it without the “Remember when?” wink that lesser actors might have employed. Freedman had carefully calibrated how Jeffrey discovers that hot-shot Phil is all hot air and Kudisch honors that every step of the way.
As Jeffrey’s buddies, Alex Wyse is a Phil Silvers in the making and Ben Fankhauser shows he has a bit more on the ball than his cronies. Stuart Zagnit, as the El Flamingo manager, has just enough gravitas mixed with fun that such a job would require.
A resort such as El Flamingo would shut down for the winter. After June 15, THE FLAMINGO KID will instead shut down for the summer. But just as resorts would make their improvements in the off-season, so will THE FLAMINGO KID. Let’s see it on Broadway before the summer resorts open next year.