The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., 625-1900, 5thavenue.org. $29 and up. Runs Tues.–Sun. Ends Oct. 6.
Given its stated mission to send a new musical to Broadway every season, the 5th Avenue has scored one bull’s-eye after another. With successful launches of First Date, Memphis, and Catch Me If You Can, later subject to a few tweaks and refinements, they’ve made it look easy—until now. Though its problems aren’t insurmountable, Secondhand Lions will require a substantial rethink.
Based on a 2003 movie in which lovable old Texas codgers Robert Duvall and Michael Caine schooled young Haley Joel Osment (remember him?), this stage musical proffers a stupefyingly talented cast and two or three killer showtunes. What it doesn’t have, and desperately needs, is focus, despite such a simple plot. Walter (the pitch-perfect Johnny Rabe) is an 11-year-old nebbish sent by his philandering mother to spend what promises to be a miserable summer with uncles Garth and Hub (Broadway mainstays Gregg Edelman and Mark Jacoby). Walter discovers that his uncles are the stuff of legend—unless he’s falling for their Texas-sized tall tales. There’s a trunk of money hidden on the premises, the locals murmur. Is it the ill-gotten gains of a bank-robbing career? Or did the uncles really once have exotic adventures in the Foreign Legion? To illustrate these yarns, greatly expanded from the movie, playwright Rupert Holmes creates entire fantasy sequences featuring the swashbuckling young Garth and Hub. We see how, for example, they rescued a damsel (the voluptuous Jenny Powers) from the clutches of a dastardly sheik (Jason Danieley, who chews the scenery with Saturday-matinee-serial fervor).
Like The Wizard of Oz or The Princess Bride, Secondhand Lions is a fable, a story-within-a-story bookended by a familiar reality. It’s a promising conceit, maybe even a future classic with enough rewriting. But Holmes and director Scott Schwartz make a serious misstep in treating the show’s action-filled center—the uncles’ supposed Arabian adventures—as cornball and camp. It’s tantamount to hearing Christian Bale’s Batman reflect on his crime-fighting career, then watching Adam West’s TV Batman perform those escapades in flashback. In the second act, everything grinds to such a halt that even the present-day Texas characters call bullshit and break into the flashbacks to try to set things right.
If that weren’t bad enough, the actual lion from the movie is gone and an extraneous new human introduced, the know-it-all girl Jane (Sophia Anne Caruso). Likely intended to increase the show’s demographic appeal, this irritating character only adds to the goulash of a story. Cast excluded, this Secondhand Lions is nowhere near ready for Broadway. Eugene Lee’s main set—a makeshift barn wall that serves double duty as the backdrop for desert adventures—demands serious reconsideration. First Date composers Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner’s songs are safe and sensible, and a few boast memorable tunes you’ll want to hear again and often. But until its creators take the whole story seriously—legends included—this lion will never roar.