A long time ago, before John Travolta conquered the discos, there flourished a movie repertory house in Little Italy called the New Mayfield. In this distant epoch, films couldn't be downloaded or rented on DVD or video. Thus, those with an adventurous cinematic palate had to seek out antiques and esoterica at the aforementioned venue.
Whenever this feisty little theater was headed toward the financial shoals, it would hoist up the cult black-comedy Harold and Maude, and once again there would be smooth monetary sailing. This 1971 darling of the counterculture chronicled the life-affirming effect of the peculiarly offbeat love affair between a suicide-obsessed 20-year-old boy and a salty 79-year-old female Holocaust survivor.
The film works because of Hal Ashby's quirky directing style and especially Ruth Gordon's once-in-a-century evocation of a naughtily charming gargoyle. It joins the ranks of The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as symbols of the anti-authoritarian spirit that permeated the late '60s and early '70s. With its cops-as-intruding-clowns, cretinous military men, Mom as a castrating Medusa and the central carnal relationship between puberty and senility - all orchestrated by a soundtrack composed of Cat Stevens' folk-rock, do-your-own-thing wails - the work remains an ideal time capsule. Buried beneath all its funky charm and wit is that rare commodity: a genuinely subversive film.
Ideally, a stage musicalization of an established work like this will add nuance, romance or grandeur to the original - as librettist-lyricist Tom Jones has so notably done in the past with The Fantasticks and 110 in the Shade. His recent adaptation of Harold and Maude, in collaboration with composer Joseph Thalken, is genial, achingly heartfelt and occasionally zany. But without the critical contribution of his former partner Harvey Schmidt's intuitive melodies, it lacks the film's essential antic spark.
Though Jones' lyrics still show traces of his trademark zest and heart, Thalken's music seems faintly reminiscent of a half-dozen '60s Broadway tunesmiths. With the exceptions of Harold's finding-his-courage song and a tender love duet between the eponymous couple, the score serves more as footnote than embellishment and evaporates as it plays out.
Cain Park director Victoria Bussert is renowned for unearthing and polishing young talent. In her selection of Corey Mach to play Harold, she's surpassed herself. Mach has the perfect outsized Hirschfeld features that turn supporting players into stars. He also has the rare ability to transform himself from geek to heartthrob in a beat. Added to this is a conviction that could make a toothpaste jingle ring out with the emotional honesty of vintage Rodgers and Hammerstein. Maryann Nagel, though far too young, makes an intensely likable Maude, but, alas, with the rough edges smoothed down. With the film's carnal aspects of the couple's relationship cowardly toned down by the adapters, Nagel's character is turned into a comfortably less-threatening variation on the musical theater's favorite grand old gal, Auntie Mame.
Even if this adaptation were not overly sentimental and had more of the original's bite, perhaps it's a work whose time has passed, leaving it as a quaint memento for a rummage sale.
Harold and Maude, Through August 17, Cain Park, Lee & Superior Roads, Cleveland Heights, 216.371.3000