The revue of Randy Newman’s songs that just opened at the Mark Taper Forum works because it gets precisely when, and when not, the songwriter’s tongue is lodged firmly in cheek — and because its cast sings and looks a lot better than the notoriously raspy, frumpy Newman. Technically, Harps and Angels is a jukebox musical, a collection of extant pop songs — yes, including “I Love L.A.” and “Short People” — strung together for the stage. But conceived by Jack Viertel and directed by Jerry Zaks, it’s a lot smarter than that usual nostalgic pop cliche. That’s because Newman’s one of rock’s greatest wisecrackers, a sardonic wit who writes sweet-sounding ballads about slavery’s middle passage.
That song, “Sail Away,” is one of several that aim a hard jab at the American psyche in Harps and Angels. Katey Sagal, aka Peg Bundy, delivers a hilarious Howard Zinnesque lecture on “Great Nations of Europe,” proving that she’s not just a gifted comic actress but a great singer. By the time Newman’s near-rant “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” is delivered near the end of act two, it’s clear that this is no mere feel-good pop musical. Newman’s much closer to Stephen Sondheim than Frankie Valli in ironic verse.
In my opinion, Zaks, Viertel, and the talented cast get the tone just right. I like some of these songs better in their hands and mouths than in their creators’. Zaks smartly doesn’t go for the obvious choices: The salacious “You Can Leave Your Hat On” is sung by the Marilyn Monroe-esque Storm Large to a befuddled, nerdish Ryder Bach. Michael McKean subs in just right as a graying doppelganger for Newman (who is merely an occasional taped presence in the show). On a couple songs, the character of God is played by a black woman, Adriane Lenox. The political edge in Act 1 gets mostly displaced into character sketches and philosophical questions in Act 2. There’s no real storyline here, which bothered LA Times reviewer Charles McNulty, but didn’t bother me at all. Themes and characters recur, but Harps is more a medley of short stories than a narrative. As it should be.