The cast recording may be out of print, but the score for Al Carmines’ and María Irene Fornés’ Promenade is very much alive at City Center. Part of the Encores! Off-Center summer series, this revival makes a convincing case for this hilarious, clever, and ultimately affecting forgotten musical.
Fornés, the Cuban-American playwright, is known mostly for avant garde works like Fefu and Her Friends, but she brings the same kind of boundary-breaking storytelling to her libretto for Promenade. Written in 1965 at the crest of the post-war Theatre of the Absurd movement, the titular walkabout is taken by a pair of escaped prisoners who encounter several larger-than-life characters, Alice in Wonderland-style, before being taken back to their cell by a jailer who has been hunting them all along. There’s no more plot than that, and at the end–in true absurdist fashion–nothing has really changed.
Fornés and Carmines use the story of these two men, known only as 105 and 106, to show the foibles of a capitalist society. Fornés’ libretto highlights income inequality amongst the characters and underscores the invisibility of the lower classes to the upper. Carmines’ music moves between cakewalks and torch songs fluidly, crafting such enjoyable, memorable tunes that it’s unbelievable they are not woven into the fabric of American musical theatre standards.
In its socioeconomic thinking and its musical style, Promenade resembles Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill musicals like The Threepenny Opera and Happy End. Carmines’ thumping piano and orchestral textures show the influence of Weill’s work and Fornés’ politicization of greed is similar to Brecht’s as well. Promenade doesn’t actively break the fourth wall, but it’s arguable that the characters are so out of bounds that no walls could contain them anyway.
As 105 and 106, James T. Lane and Kent Overshown are the most naturalistic characters in the piece. They are the observers, just trying to move through this melee without being caught by the jailer. They sing in beautiful harmony with each other. Their voices latch together in the ether and form a bond befitting of their relationship. Mark Bedard plays the Jailer as a kind of half-assed Keystone Cop. His movements are slapsticky, but he intentionally removes the force. When he runs, he runs sideways in a cross between a gallop and a shuffle-off-to-Buffalo, as if being pulled by a vaudeville cane. Bedard also effectively navigates the more unsavory aspects of the Jailer: he’s a serial rapist, luring all women who come to the jail into a room where they have to exchange sex for visitation rights. Fornés is showing how the criminal justice system takes everything they can from prisoners and their families, exploiting them at their most vulnerable and Bedard is appropriately vile.
Within the coterie of wackadoos 105 and 106 encounter on their journey are a trio of women known only by letters: Miss I, Miss O, and Miss U, played by Carmen Ruby Floyd, Soara-Joye Ross, and Marcy Harriel respectively. Each of these women is given a show-stopping solo number, but Ross’ “The Moment Has Passed” is a feat of comedy and allows her to show off her virtuosic soprano. Bryonha Marie Parham, in a role originated by Madeline Kahn, plays a servant and the prisoners’ only friend. After the three lettered women complete their solos, Parham launches into a truly hysterical takedown of the rich that is one of the production’s highlights.
Laurie Woolery’s production finds the exact sweet spot for the material. It doesn’t tip too far into ham-handed humor, but strikes the right balance of too much and just enough. Absurdist material like this is difficult to negotiate, but Woolery and her team have managed it and the production is successful as a result. The set by Donyale Werle evokes the aesthetics of silent film and vaudeville with titled placards flying down to announce the locations and a shifting city skyline that expands and contracts with the prisoners’ travels.
There’s also something transcendent happening that must be acknowledged. Saundra Santiago first appears with a gentle piano accompaniment and asks the prisoners if they “have seen [her] babies.” The Mother’s entrance immediately douses the madcap proceedings in cold water, sobering everyone up and slamming us into reality. We don’t know anything about the character other than she is looking for these children and has been for years. She comes back over and over and it’s a continual gut-punch. The character might be homeless and she might be crazy (one gets the sense that her “babies” are now adults). She takes the prisoners under her wing, as surrogate children, and is even imprisoned with them at the end.
In the jail, Santiago delivers a paean to accepting the hand life has given you and it brings down the house. “I have to live with my own truth / Whether you like it or not,” she sings. And as she moves with the music, opening her arms to life’s blows, she seems to conjure Fornés herself. Their resemblance is uncanny already, but in Santiago’s soulful embrace of the song’s mantra, it was like the playwright had been resurrected and was offering us all this piece of advice. Fornés is telling us to forget about the shit times and find a way to accept them. The musical embraced the audience in that moment and we hugged it right back.