In one of the many sprightly songs that provide the best reason for seeing the 45th-anniversary revival of the jazz/beat musical The Nervous Set, the leading man exudes, "We just have one life/Let's make it a fun life." Yet this once-brash musical has had as many lives as a cool cat -- and never quite the same life twice. Now it's alive again, in a manner of speaking. For, although a form of The Nervous Set is back in St. Louis, this current staging by New Line Theatre is far removed in both content and tone from the legendary production that premiered at the Crystal Palace in Gaslight Square in March 1959. Nor does it approximate the much-altered version that transferred to Broadway two months later, or even the revival that was staged here in 1985. This Nervous Set is at best a hybrid, and a precariously truncated hybrid at that.
Whereas the original production clocked in at way over three hours, this current edition lasts less than two. It's as if all we're getting here are extended fragments of a once-innovative evening. If this restored Nervous Set were a movie rather than a play, periodically a title card would appear onscreen to tell us what's missing; here, the audience is left adrift. The continuity is choppy. Apparently the characters' through-lines have been lost in the debris of the rewrites.
Granted, it's a Herculean challenge to resurrect this will-o'-the-wisp of a musical, because it never stood still long enough to settle into a final version. Its creator, producer-director Theodore J. Flicker, was a product of improvisational theater, where sketches are ever-changing. During its brief life, The Nervous Set was -- like an extended improv sketch -- in a constant state of flux. No one kept track of the incessant rewrites.
Although the current production resembles a jigsaw puzzle that's missing several pieces, its spasmodic account of the checkered relationship between a Greenwich Village beatnik (Jeffrey Pruett) and a square girl from Connecticut (Kirstin Kennedy) offers occasional glimpses into how intriguing The Nervous Set must have been in 1959. Mostly these revelatory moments have to do with the still-fresh lyrics by Fran Landesman. Some of her rhymes are witty ("Shakespeare is a hack/So we read Kerouac"), others are haunting ("All the sad young men, sitting in the bars/Knowing neon lights, missing all the stars"), while still others merely amuse ("Mondays are postponed/'Cause everybody's stoned"). A surprising number of the compositions by Landesman and Tommy Wolf, who wrote the music, remain ebullient and charming.
Among the cast, Danna Dockery is truest to the show's original style. As the "other woman" whose sultry presence disrupts an already shaky marriage, Dockery sings the bluesy "Tell Me Lies" in a manner that is one part jazz riff, one part Broadway ballad, one part torch song. Late in the evening Mark Moloney provides the proceedings with a much-needed shot of adrenaline as a mogul whose extreme wealth purchases praise for his feeble poems.
But the production itself is problematic. Even ignoring the mindless affectation of having costumed everyone in hues of blue (the impractical set is also blue), a much more significant problem is that too much of the action is played upstage. Thom Crain does what he can with the song "How Do You Like Your Love?", a humorous litany of unconventional sex practices and positions. But those lyrics were intended to be hurled at the audience. Here Crain is as far from the paying customers as possible. Even the three-piece jazz band seems misplaced. In 1959 The Nervous Set turned theater on its ear by placing the musicians onstage. Here they are not so much onstage as partially visible upstage. Big difference: If the musicians are to provide the evening's life force, they need to be seen.
By evening's end it becomes clear that this production has no life force. It tries mightily to evoke a time and place but fails to understand the unique circumstances that gave birth to this anomaly. The New Line poster proclaims of The Nervous Set, "BORN IN GASLIGHT SQUARE, 1959. RE-BORN IN 2004!" "Stillborn" would be a more accurate adjective.
For more about the history of The Nervous Set, see last week's feature story, "Beat Regeneration."