This hit musical’s piano player ‘raises Alice’ in fabulous ‘Trouble in Mind

In which the piano player—Neil to you—rarely mentioned drugs, but did shout, “There’s cocaine, motherf—er!” every so often, on the way out. But the alcohol was the real culprit, as much as a girl…

This hit musical’s piano player ‘raises Alice’ in fabulous ‘Trouble in Mind

In which the piano player—Neil to you—rarely mentioned drugs, but did shout, “There’s cocaine, motherf—er!” every so often, on the way out. But the alcohol was the real culprit, as much as a girl named Judith . . .

GILBERT CUNNINGHAM/WASHINGTON POST

Please note that no swearing was necessary to enjoy this show. Just give the reference to drugs a “salute,” which they should. It’s nearly the whole show. (Except for that last one.) For the last 50 years, the musical comedy that gave us “Raising Alice”—she’s still a baby, Dad—was “Trouble in Mind.” And no stage needs a devious and musically clueless son to tell jokes that are effective only in that they slyly insinuate.

If there’s one person who has perfected this job (person vs. scene), it’s David Pittu, who plays the magnificent piano player, Neil. The mostly instrumental song, “There’s Cocaine, Motherf—er!”, about the late, lamented Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, is one of the show’s oldest numbers, that should serve as a tunebook. Neil tells the stories of Burton and Taylor, as they had a wildly romantic affair that left a manila envelope in the shape of a baby, “raising Alice.” The lyrics, driven by Pittu’s perfect left hand, are by Alan Zweibel and Liza Kimber, who revealed the idea through a letter to Zweibel in 1964, when “Baby” was originally to be called “He Blows Babies Away.” (The inventive writers didn’t have enough money to turn the letter into a full story so called “Baby” was licensed.)

These songs can be terrific fun, and all this is happening in a natural setting. Judith (Michaella Brown), the daughter played by Erika Gumbs, is visiting her father (Kevin Mccovery), who is in the shower. “How come you’re not wearing makeup?” Neil, trying not to move, asks Judith, who is a little less than transparent, which is a good thing. Neil’s home, part of the Beverly Hills Hotel, in a room all painted the same for all rooms, where only he gets up when he needs his pleather shoes washed. (Where’s the excuse for a climate-controlled hotel room? There should be one in that climate.)

Esther Yishai, the director of this 67-year-old show, had a Leningrad doll to hand out to the audience, as “Trouble in Mind” takes place in a shoeboxed hotel room, one of the Dream-within-Dream guys—son to mother—sure to become a cult hit. This particular doll, by the way, comes with a background story that tells a tale of one of these Dream-within-Dream guys’ first job and having to care for the puppy for the return of the regular puppy. But wait, wait! The dream he lived in came true, and the real Dream toy was thrown in the trash! But there was still a room within a room: the Dream was only ever part of Neil’s imagination.

Virtually everything in the show, about three hours long, is music and lyrics, when director and choreographer Michael Mayer tweaked the scoring to an eight-piece band. That includes the original sheet music, which Erika Gumbs, the show’s gifted singer, sings in a voice suited to the tunes that make so many people laugh. This is definitely pop music, but a few legitimate Broadway tunes, sung with conviction, may have been overlooked, including Gumbs’ solo rendition of “I Just Soothed a Bear” and Andrew Lippa’s “Jasper Johns.” These are songs about unlikely intimacy, around tables that sleep with saws and feet with boots that laugh, and just moments away from a lifetime. Why aren’t more theatergoers humming them?

Like a starry art museum, “Trouble in Mind” has an overwhelming feeling of effort and accomplishment.

“Trouble in Mind,” Lincoln Center Theater, Dance Theater of Harlem, Lucille Lortel Theatre, 480 W. 60th St., 212-695-5522. Nov. 16–Dec. 30.

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