THE EDUCATION OF RANDY NEWMAN
ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 206-292-7660, $10-$50 7:30 p.m. Sun. and Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. select matinees. ends Sun., Dec. 1
THE LAST TIME I saw somebody try to add a dramatic touch to Randy Newman's songs was once at Bumbershoot, when a yellow spotlight appeared as he performed "Yellow Man." "It's so cheesy!" he murmured, amused. ACT's ambitious stab at linking his songs into a single, full-on theatrical story is anything but cheesy: It's a class act. On a spare set, seven singers act out about 40 songs, most of them great; the little orchestra performs behind a scrim upon which the nifty projection images designed by Wendall K. Harrington perform (more obviously relevant to the lyrics than her projections for Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense).
Newman's acerbic songs are usually about other, imaginary people (except the Naked Man, who was real). Here, they add up to a loose autobiography: illustrious relatives who composed film scores, early years bouncing between L.A. and New Orleans, ascent to stardom, descent of innocence. Some songs are on the money, autobiography-wise, like "Duck With Money," a funny lampoon of his immense wealth from writing Disney scores, and the highly catchy tune—composed for this show—in which his wife tells him not to turn their breakup into one of his "Stupid Little Songs."
Really, though, his life is a mere backdrop, and each song its own self-contained drama. Randy Newman does not sing in The Education of Randy Newman, and that's a good thing. He is impersonated, sort of, by Daniel Jenkins, a Tony-nominated Broadway actor who sings better while still suggesting the beautiful badness of Newman's voice (once famously likened to "a frightened bison," though to me he sounds more like an ashtray gargling). Jenkins' croak harmonizes sweetly with his slinky stage wife Brooke Sunny Moriber's croon on the unutterably lovely "I Think It's Going to Rain Today." Jeff Trachta sings an affecting "Real Emotional Girl," here staged as an ode to what appears to be a Miami call girl. The Broadway-ish Moriber blends nicely with the bluesier Lovena Fox and Cathy Richardson on "Lullaby." Allan Louis immortalizes "Roll With the Punches," which satirizes racism the way "Political Science" satirizes nuclear jingoism. William Katt (who played Sissy Spacek's prom date in Carrie) does well by the Huey Long song "Kingfish," though the way the company marches around to it seems corny. Elsewhere, corny is apt, as in the runt-bashing antics of "Short People."
The show captures Newman's oddly jaunty bleakness and even, at points, his well-hidden heart.