Musical revues aren't complicated. You take a composer or singer—say, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, or Harry Chapin—you perform his or her songs onstage, and everyone walks away impressed by the diversity and quality of the person's catalog.
But The Education of Randy Newman, a world-premiere musical at South Coast Repertory, aims for something loftier than a career retrospective. The title is a tip of the literary cap to The Education of Henry Adams, the college-required autobiography that balanced the story of a man's life with the changing character of America.
At SCR, the conceit at work in The Education of Randy Newman is that, via Newman's songs, the audience can gain a deeper understanding of both the man and the country he's lived in since his birth in 1943. It's an ambitious undertaking, one that those only superficially familiar with Newman's work (hits like "Short People" or "I Love L.A.") might think unsupportable. But Michael Roth and Jerry Patch, who created the piece with Newman, are obviously aware of the depth of the material. That's why the show opens with a prologue containing two of Newman's most satirical stabs, his anti-imperialist "The Great Nations of Europe" and "Sail Away," maybe the sweetest, most melodic condemnation of the slave trade ever written.
The rest of the first act follows through on the ambitious juxtaposition of personal and national development. Newman's individual growth is explored through his adolescent and teenage years growing up in New Orleans, particularly the tension he felt between wanting to be a good, solid, patriotic American ("My Country," "Jolly Coppers on Parade") and the rampant economic and racial discrimination he witnessed in the South (the rollicking "Rednecks").
But things falter in the second act when the large canvas of racism and politics shifts to a smaller focus. Newman, now living in LA, is older and more successful, and while several of the songs deal with his ongoing exploration of economic inequality ("It's Money That Matters," "My Life Is Good,"), the act is dominated by songs about crumbling marriages and issues of private morality and mortality. There are some fine songs, all expertly delivered by the stellar cast, but things tend to drag as one subdued number follows another. More important, the show loses the sense that it is America's story and becomes Newman's story, or a construct of Newman formed from his songs—minus, you suspect, the juicier and more sensational bits.
Although thematically flawed, this show is richly entertaining and excellently produced. Director and choreographer Myron Johnson manages a brightly creative staging that's heavy on visual stimuli but not so obtrusive that it gets in the way of what's important: the songs. The cast is also excellent, with Jennifer Leigh Warren shaking the house every time she opens her mouth.
Nonetheless, the real star of this show might be co-conceiver Roth, who conducts the excellent band, which he leads on piano, and who is credited with the vocal arrangements, orchestrations and musical direction. You'll recognize a lot of these songs, but they are delivered by people with better voices than Newman's, and many of the arrangements are tricked-out until they sound better than the originals (although a more rocking "Mama Told Me Not to Come" would have pleased at least one closeted Three Dog Night fan).
So, while The Education of Randy Newman doesn't ace the Big Test it sets for itself, it's one of the most entertaining courses of study you'll find on any local stage, big or small, this summer. And it's infinitely more skillful than the stupid metaphors at work in the preceding sentence.
The Education of Randy Newman at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through July 2. $23-$52.