It is with extreme trepidation that I enter the world of reviewing a theatrical musical. The guys that do this for a living and carry the journalistic power to kill a play on opening night have always baffled me. They seem to operate from an elitist standard that I don’t always understand. But having seen a new show get its premiere run here in Music City, I couldn’t hold back on the opportunity to relay my impressions.
The show in question was a drama intertwined with the music of the late Dan Fogelberg with its title coming from one of his songs, “Part of the Plan.” I was a fan of Dan’s music in the late 70s and had forgotten this truly infectious song. My “plan” to see this show created an instant ear worm that I just couldn’t shake right up until show time.
For the unfamiliar, Fogelberg started out as a country rock artist much in the style of a Jackson Browne. I adored his first three records and in the 70s saw him live several times in the New York City area. However, I later lost interest in his career when he followed the path of a James Taylor with a much more middle-of-the-road sound that often bordered on jazz.
Sadly, Dan Fogelberg died an untimely death in 2007 at age 56 from prostate cancer.
Test-driving this production in Nashville made me look at Fogelberg’s Music City history. He recorded his debut album here in 1972 with producer Norbert Putnam and returned in 1985 to cut a bluegrass-tinged record with our town’s best players. It’s also where he met his wife Jean.
However, a Tennessean review of a 1975 concert posted in the TPAC lobby offered two interesting insights about Dan and our city. The piece by Eve Zibart began with the surprising “It’s been a long time since anybody sold out a concert in Nashville, but last night’s Dan Fogelberg show at the War Memorial Auditorium was absolutely SRO several days beforehand.” The other notable tidbit was the heads up that Fogelberg was scheduled to join Batdorf and Rodney, his opening act, at the Exit/In the next night.
This all leads up to the current production which is the marriage of Fogelberg’s music and a new book by Kate Atkinson & Karen Harris. The process puzzled me insofar as how an existing and varied body of musical work could be woven into a dramatic story line.
Well, after witnessing the second scene in which the song “Power of Gold” was used metaphorically to characterize the nature of the wealthy country club setting in the 60s, I was about to give up hope that this would work. This connection seemed weak and contrived, and I felt if the writers were try to force together puzzle pieces that just did not fit.
However, as time went on, the story began to take hold on its own, and the songs more loosely and appropriately seem to blend in. At times, they simply served as a transitional breather to capture, close and transition the mood, while on occasion, a poignant line from a song would appropriately accentuate the plot. One moment where an entire song felt just right was the use of “Leader of the Band” at the funeral of a young man’s music-loving father. This was a song Fogelberg wrote as a tribute to his father, a high school band director.
The stage setting for the play was sparse, but generally effective, and I’m totally unqualified to judge the choreography although it was by no means overdone. But, the music was wonderfully arranged and excellently performed. A special nod goes out to lead actor Harvey Jay who to my ears sounded remarkably like Fogelberg. In fact, at one point in the show, I mistook his off-stage singing for what I thought was a recording of the late singer himself.
Music fans should be interested to know that one of the show’s musical arrangers was Laurence Juber who at one time was lead guitarist for Paul McCartney’s Wings. Also, the artwork for the show is the creation of Dan’s widow Jean Fogelberg.
In all, the story line held together well taking the mistakes and tragedies of life through a course of events with a case of extreme coincidence providing for a happy ending. Some occasional vulgarity and sexual references probably exclude the kids from seeing this one.
Regardless of how this production is critically received, one thing obvious was that the house was full of Fogelberg fans who found an overdue outlet to relive his music. So, if it turns out that Broadway is not in the cards for Part of the Plan, a touring company could be a smash success offering Fogelberg fans elsewhere the chance to see a good story full of the music they love.
Last time I looked, there were still some tickets left for the remaining performances at TPAC.