Henry Miller in Brooklyn starts, promisingly enough, with a suicide. Miller comes on and sits at his typewriter in the middle of a grandly sloppy room — strewn with silk clothes and nude watercolors, lace tablecloths and empty bottles — while a three-piece ensemble plays angular jazz that evokes the mess. “Dear cunt,” sings Henry, in an operatic tenor, “Dear motherfucker/ Lousy no-good fucking broad/ Dearest, when you read this, I'll be dead.” The show's composer, Mark Alburger, stands to one side of the theater and conducts his pocket-size band in a blazer and tennis shoes.
A new musical! Christ, haven't I seen enough new musicals? This one is an appealing jumble of formal and crass elements that never quite fuse into an emotional whole. The music owes a conscious debt to Kurt Weill; Alburger took his time signatures and overall structure from The Threepenny Opera. A run of the horns in his “Idea Song” even refers directly to Weill's “Cannon Song.” Alburger also admits to raiding Gregorian chant, Georges Bizet, King Crimson, boogie-woogie, Philip Glass, rap, and Richard Wagner (to name a few sources) for his score, and in spite of the self-conscious list of influences Alburger's music is the show's strongest asset. His piano, trumpet, and saxophone move with a restless and complicated energy.
In terms of plot, the show is a prequel to the kitschy film Henry and June. Miller struggles as an unpublished writer in 1920s Brooklyn — before Paris or Anaïs Nin. He's married to June, who dances in a cabaret. They live with June's lesbian painter friend Jeanne, and Miller, of course, is wracked with jealousy. The “Ballad of Past Lovers” tots up the number of women and men June has slept with since their marriage; Miller tries to commit suicide because of this, ahem, state of affairs.
The material should lend itself to a modern, jazz-based opera, but the story doesn't go anywhere. We see poor Henry preparing to off himself, then we learn why, and in the end June leaves for Paris. Some other things happen, but without consequence. The fairly brief show is packed with 21 songs, leaving little room for spoken lines, meaning the songs have no room to rise from the action. It's as if Alburger imposed a Threepenny structure on Mel Clay's script and forced most of the crucial scenes into songs. The results are stilted. It doesn't help that Rick Richetta and Tisha Page act Henry and June without conviction.
Which is not to say they can't sing. Henry's “At the Blood Bank” is a coarse, half-spoken, arrhythmic evocation of the novelist's messy life. “Subway Madman” is also strong — a near-total submission to chaos, with a lot of screaming by Henry and blaring of horns where the tune should be. “Hello Jupiter,” Henry's climactic song, is good in the opposite way: Instead of cacophony and confusion we get exuberant, soaring melody, and Richetta's voice sounds nimble and pure. Page gets similar results out of “Doctor Song” and the “Ballad of Past Lovers.”
But Elaine Foley Romanelli does the show's best work as Jeanne. Her “Ballad of the Difficult Life” is a pretty swoon about the artist-as-Christ, and “At the Club” is a sinuous, high-voiced tease, aimed at Henry, about June's work as a dancer. Although Jeanne serves as a cursory third wheel on Henry and June's romantic bicycle, Romanelli invests her with a strong presence. “Arthur Rimbaud” may be the show's most interesting song, with its heavy rhythm and irregular melody; Jeanne playfully declares a preference for the French romantics against Russian novelists like Dostoevski. (She and Henry do not get along.)
These are the bright moments in a show that otherwise just lies there: The worst sin Henry Miller commits is that it commits no interesting sins. The tears, like the lust, are forced, and the operatic drama inherent in this bohemian ménage is pantomimed rather than felt. Well, what can you do? It seems to be a trend. Floyd Collins, about a Kentucky folk hero, was almost innocent of folk music; André Previn's opera of Streetcar a few years back was confusingly free of jazz. Henry Miller is another formal accomplishment in music that misses the essence of its theme: It has all the cacophony but none of the thrust of a Henry Miller book.