When screenwriter Colin Higgins's movie, Harold and Maude (Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon), opened in 1972, Vincent Canby panned it in The New York Times and the showbiz trade paper, Variety, said it had "all the fun of a burning orphanage." The film became and remains a cult classic anyway. When Vogue magazine interviewed 50-plus Cort in 2001, the writer was more interested in his 30-year-old Harold performance than anything he had done since.
In 1980 Higgins re-authored his story for the Broadway stage, adding a song for Harold and some incidental music. Director Robert Lewis mounted it in a pastel-hued, pastel-souled production starring Hollywood legend Janet Gaynor and Keith McDermott in the title roles. Reviews from indifferent to withering closed the show after 21 previews and only four performances.
Now author-lyricist Tom Jones whose long career started with The Fantasticks and includes 110 in the Shade and I Do, I Do, has teamed with composer Joseph Thalken to turn it into what Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton is billing as "an intimate musical." (Thalken, who conducts on Broadway (Victor, Victoria, for example) as well as composing, scored the HRTC production, WAS, two seasons back.)
In all three versions Harold and Maude's story begins with 20-year-old Harold entering, carrying a step-stool and approaching a noose dangling from the ceiling. He climbs up, inserts his neck in the noose, snaps the lifeline into the hook in his safety harness and steps off the stool.
His mother enters, sees him dangling and, significantly, neither panics nor makes any effort to rescue him. This is, after all, the 17th time Harold has staged a fake suicide and the 17th time his utterly self-absorbed mother fails to grasp his need to create such diversions.
It all three versions, the story ends with 80-year-old Maude feeling her body closing down. She quietly and affirmatively embraces real suicide, saying, "I'm not afraid of dying, Harold; I'm afraid of not living." And she's goes secure in knowing that her death will lead Harold to finally embrace the richness of life.
Intimate this Harold and Maude is — and not just in that it has a cast of five, plus two onstage stagehands supported by an orchestra of only four, conducted from the keyboard by Cincinnatian Scott Woolley.
Jones's intimate script bares the inner working of this oddest of odd couples, perhaps more accessibly and convincingly than Higgins did in his two versions. Director Kevin Moore underscores the intimacy by orchestrating a circus of clownish caricature performances around the edges of the story. But he keeps the duo scenes in which Harold (Justin Schultz) and Maude (Susan Lehman) inch toward their relationship quiet, simple and forthright — eschewing all quirk or bravura. Harold goes about his macabre stunts — bombs, hari-kiri, cleavering off a fake hand in front of a date his mother arranged — with sleek timing but no fanfare. Maude's character might read as little more than a catalog of eccentricities but does not play so. She's genuine, a person not a character. When she turns to Harold and asks out of the blue if he would like to play a banjo, it draws a laugh. But it's not a joke; it's a genuine, interested inquiry. And never, never are their eccentricities glossed or seen as endearing little kinks.
Although Harold is 20 and Maude is 80, this is authentically a love story. Exactly how intimate their relationship becomes must remain a secret for the show to reveal to audiences in the eight remaining HRTC performances (though March 25).
It doesn't hurt that Jones, Thalken and Moore have found two splendidly able performers to play Harold and Maude: Schultz is a CCM grad, now living and career building in New York. He's worked at HRTC twice before, in Drawer Boy and Beautiful Thing. Lehman (native of Ft. Wayne) got married 410 times in the first national tour of Fiddler on the Roof, directs for the stage and for television, was just in a NY City Center revival of 70 Girls 70 and is in an upcoming Disney film. Maude marks her first HRTC appearance.
What crafty, witty, intimate, well-matched and well-mated performances Shultz and Lehman give as this pair of 1970s rebels with just causes. Harold is wealthy, bored, victimized by and quietly raging against a California materialism that values stuff and avoids substance. Maude is poor, about to be evicted and utterly impatient with rules that mostly benefit their enforcers while ignoring needy people and an endangered environment. She'd been a concerned flower child for 50 years before the term was invented.
And they both sing splendidly. Thalken's score leans more toward the thoroughly integrated, sung dialogue, new school sort of musical than to an older musical comedy tradition that imbedded discrete songs into the dialogue. But when Schultz and Lehman compare their lives in "Two Sides of a River," story, character and score soar together to a very singable melody.
Designer Bruce Goodrich recognized the circus at the core and set it in clashing primary colors with a purple and red, Peter Marxesque sunrise for a floor. Patricia Linhart makes Harold's mother a total materialist bitch, obsessed with youth maintenance in contrast to Maude's delighted embrace of age. Scott Stoney and Katie Pees appear in a variety of roles, most effectively as a vicar and a choir boy who turn liturgy into dueling duets when officiating at the funerals Harold and Maude like to attend.
The middle of Act I sags a little when Maude is kept offstage and we're left with the caricature character for too long a stretch. And there's a three- or four-minute sequence in Act II that goes totally out of focus. But those are minor faults in a generally rewarding production. Grade: A-
HAROLD AND MAUDE continues at Dayton's Human Race Theatre Company through March 25.For tickets, call 937-228-3630 or go to humanracetheatre.org