Encountering a song by the late Harry Chapin on the radio is always a moment to treasure: His simple, clear, and wistful voice is ideally suited to his story-songs, which often trace the morose and disappointing lives of ordinary people. And on the radio, there's never another Harry Chapin song to follow the first. Because the more Chapin you hear, one after the other, the less impact you feel. This popular folk-pop artist was a fine man who, unfortunately, was only a marginally talented songwriter.
Some of Chapin's strengths and a lot of his weaknesses are trotted forth in Lies and Legends: The Music of Harry Chapin at Beck Center. This production is a reunion for the five-person cast (minus one, Ken Benz, who died more than a decade ago at age 37), which performed the show at Beck in 1990. As a result, it's an emotional event for those in the Beck family, but it still doesn't make Chapin's body of work any better than mediocre.
As a composer, Chapin often relied on the same loosely linked melodic structure, which repeated itself with little variation. And his lyrics, frequently trite and overly sentimental, were often just so many square pegs that he kept pounding into round holes.
But when Chapin hit the mark, the results could be memorable. "Cat's in the Cradle," familiar to almost everyone, is a tight tale of a son who grows up to return his father's emotional disconnection. Mickey Houlahan handles this tune with understated irony, and he's a standout on other numbers -- particularly the hilarious trucker-anthem parody "30,000 Pounds of Bananas."
Dan Folino, the new cast addition, does everything he can to pump energy and humor into the proceedings. But his soaring pipes are wasted on some of Chapin's less distinguished efforts, including "Odd Job Man," a one-joke song with an entirely predictable punch line. While Paul Alessandro doesn't have the singing chops of the other two men, his voice most closely resembles the down-to-earthiness of Chapin himself. This is especially effective on the gem "Taxi," perhaps the finest example of the songwriter's ability to weave a short story out of words and music.
Tracee Patterson seems a bit uncertain with some of her comedic blocking in the silly novelty ditty "Salt and Pepper," about two bruisingly mismatched lovers. But she brings out the tenderness of "Tangled Up Puppet," singing the classic parental lament to a teenage daughter: "Hey, you, my brand-new woman, newly come into your own/Don't you know that you don't need to grow up all alone?" Monica Olejko has fewer spotlight opportunities, but deals out a respectable a cappella rendition of "Winter Song," with the boys providing street-corner backup.
Director William Roudebush, who also helmed the original Beck production, uses the set's multilevel platforms and ramp to keep the songs animated. But ultimately, one has to be a stone-cold Chapin fanatic to happily endure 22 of these folksy musings laid end to end.