The Music of Harry Chapin

Chapin Chaps

By Daedalus Howell

B IBLICAL BEAN-COUNTERS and equestrians alike can rejoice in the discovery of the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse–Sonoma County Repertory Theatre’s production of The Music of Harry Chapin, directed by Jim dePriest. Like war, famine, pestilence, and plague, more than two hours of antiquated folk music can certainly lead you to believe that the end is near–or at least make you wish it were. Before singer-songwriter Harry Chapin’s untimely death in a car wreck 17 years ago, the folk balladeer made his bread and butter penning introspective, epiphany-laden short fictions affixed to chamberlike musical mosaics.

However, the work hasn’t much of a shelf life–in the late ’90s Chapin’s paeans to lost love, bum steers, and what-ifs seem labored, didactic, and groping for poignancy. Imagine a soundtrack to an aborted musical based on confessional poetry. Worse yet: imagine Raffi for grown-ups.

The chief characteristic of Chapin’s music is a profound adoration of mush. His syrupy potpourri of sentimentalism is so virulent that friendship-cards shudder with envy. For all his ruminating, sophistry, and puerile discovery, Chapin’s music today displays little more depth than a pinprick.

Singers Cynthia Segar Carr, Jim Corbett, and Tim Hayes are the Peter, Paul, and Mary-lite whom director dePriest navigates through a veritable odyssey of 18 exhausting tunes (Chapin apparently reviled the radio-friendly notion of brevity). Carr, Corbett, and Hayes, undoubtedly Chapin zealots, are apt and able performers with voices more indistinct than flavorless–like vanilla, but nice vanilla. The three harmonize well and take solo turns in dutiful participation with the work, bobbing about Michael Mingoia’s simple set (a lamppost, a bench, a transitory phone booth) like gleeful marionettes. Hayes’ rendition of “W-O-L-D,” an epistle about an aging DJ chastening himself with regret, is the show’s best routine, owing to the performer’s confirmed ability to emote believably–Hayes acts as well as sings and saves 5.5 percent of the show.

But, oh, the material!

Chapin’s “Bananas” recounts a wretched trucking accident, in which a hapless, inexperienced driver loses his life and load (30,000 pounds of the eponymous fruit) when he careens far on a chancy curve. Not even a brood of deftly wielded Muppets could pull off such asinine crap.

In a timely, complaisant nod to the celluloid monolith Titanic, SCRT’s production includes Chapin’s giddy, black-humored “Dance Band on the Titanic,” proving decisively that the chilly deaths of 1,500 souls is something about which to laugh and sing. One wonders if the SCRT’s production staff went ransacking Chapin’s oeuvre for a pithy ode to slavery for an opportune Amistad tie-in.

And kudos to whoever nailed that form-and-content thing by electing to open and close the program with Chapin’s mundane ditty “Circle.” Golly, Superman!

Accompanying the three tenors are bassist David Lynch and pianist Carl Sokol, both adept instrumentalists whose occasional forays into sour notes at worst alleviates some of the humdrum of the production’s banal tonal landscape.

On a couple of tunes, Sokol even shows off a supernatural whistle.

Those unfamiliar with Chapin and his work can expect little guidance from SCRT. Detailed biographies of the performers are printed in the show’s program (Carr helms an a cappella act called the Carrtunes; Corbett’s alter-ego is “Mr. Music”; and Hayes enjoys painting, poetry, and kids), but Chapin receives only a terse endorsement from folk-hero Pete Seeger.

This is a bit unsettling to the uninitiated, but then, this production is not intended for the uninitiated.

This is an in-crowd endeavor. Non-Chapin fans need not attend, as opening night proved with an oft-teary-eyed house, audience members bleating noisily between tunes, chomping at the bit in cultic revel–harbingers of doom.

But hey–who’s paying the ASCAP fees, anyway?

The Music of Harry Chapin plays Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 29-31, Feb. 5-7, 12-14, and 19-21 at 8 p.m. Feb. 8 and 15 at 7 p.m.; Feb. 1 at 2 p.m. Sonoma County Repertory Theatre, 415 Humboldt St., Santa Rosa. Tickets are $12. 544-7278.

From the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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