BY DAVID KENNERLEY | In 2004, the world lost a cherished musical theater icon with the passing of lyricist Fred Ebb, who teamed with John Kander on such Broadway hits as “Cabaret,” “Chicago,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and “Curtains.” Not to mention rousing movie anthems like “New York, New York.”
After a 42-year alliance, one of the longest-running, monogamous creative partnerships in theater history (their bond was purely professional, though many assumed otherwise), Kander was left to face the music alone.
But the enterprising composer, then in his late 70s, refused to go gently into that good night.
Kander’s first Ebb-less musical refuses to give ’em the old razzle dazzle
Now, after a respectable period of mourning, Kander has taken a new partner, 35-year-old Greg Pierce (“Slowgirl”), as collaborator on his first full musical without Ebb, “The Landing,” now having its world premiere at the Vineyard Theatre. Perhaps “full musical” is a stretch, given the work has only four actors and four musicians. Chamber musical is more like it.
As directed by Walter Bobbie, who masterfully helmed the long-running “Chicago” revival, it appears that this nascent partnership is trying to find its footing. The intimate, hodge-podge of a musical consists of three gingerly plotted one-acts loosely connected by themes of longing, love, and loss.
If parts of the score throb with the distinctive brassy, borderline-demented style of Kander & Ebb, there are also lyrical, moody ballads, with a good portion of the dialogue sung through. A heavy cloud of melancholy hangs over this work, and that may be off-putting to some fans.
The first piece, “Andra,” tells the tale of Noah — misunderstood by his mother, shunned by his father, and bullied by classmates — who befriends the carpenter renovating their kitchen. The man sparks Noah’s interest in constellations and Greek mythology, but when the boy uncovers a disturbing secret, their bond breaks as quickly as it was forged.
In “The Brick,” a fantastical, warped ode to film-noir gangster flicks, a boy recounts staying with his crazy uncle and aunt, who buys a brick taken from the blood-splattered wall where the St. Valentine’s Day massacre took place. But when the brick inexplicably comes to life and wreaks havoc on the household, the boy must seek revenge.
By far the most affecting is the final piece, also titled “The Landing,” which follows the joys and fears of Denny and Jake, a longtime couple who have just adopted a seemingly perfect 12-year-old son. But when the boy insists on taking a mysterious trip with only one of his new dads, their lives are changed forever.
What elevates this wispy enterprise are the actors, who juggle multiple roles with skill and conviction. Fresh from his hilarious stint in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” David Hyde Pierce adds considerable meat to the bones of several sketched-out characters, including that deranged brick and Jake.
“I feel like I’m lost and I’m losing the love of my life to my son,” laments Jake. As sung by Pierce, the lyric leaves a sour lump in your throat.
As you may have noticed, the out and proud actor, who won a Tony playing the lead in “Curtains,” shares a last name with Kander’s new collaborator. Greg is David’s nephew.
Paul Anthony Stewart, who recently co-starred in another seaside gay-adoption play, “Harbor,” moves effortlessly from a paternal carpenter to clueless uncle to doting father.
In a range of roles — troubled mother, mentally imbalanced aunt, Jake’s fretful sister — the excellent Julia Murney reveals layers of emotional complexity. If newcomer Frankie Seratch lacks finesse, he makes up for it in gutsy charm in his portrayal of the tween boys.
The stunning abstract set design (by John Lee Beatty) and moody lighting (by Ken Billington), at times evoking a vast azure sky or emerald ocean, offer an ideal backdrop to the proceedings.
While some might dismiss the Kander & Pierce partnership as an experiment gone wrong, I believe it shows unmistakable promise. Already, the duo is hard at work on at least one other full-length musical.
THE LANDING | Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., btwn. Park Ave. S. & Irving Pl. | Through Nov. 24; Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $80 at vineyardtheatre.com or 212-353-0303