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A CurtainUp Review

Captain's Courageous: The Musical

Captains Courageous, the Musical is Manhattan Theater Club's second all male show of the season. This musicalized version of Rudyard Kipling's classic novel and the 1937 movie is hardly likely to have pickets marching outside City Center. The only debate it's likely to arouse is how long a seafaring musical about a spoiled little rich boy who learns about courage and friendship from a Portuguese fisherman can stay afloat.

Given MTC's subscription base Captains Courageous will undoubtedly sail for a while. It's a splendid looking musical, with a story textured with enough elements to resonate even though the coming-of-age seafaring adventure genre is somewhat dated and the danger and derring-do excitement on decidedly low key . Frederick Freyer's melodic score provides ample opportunity to show off the voices of the 16-member cast.

Going back to the negative side of the ledger, there are several factors besides the absence of women, that are likely to keep Captain Troop's schooner from docking on Broadway. The music gives more the impression of a folk operetta than a musical. Some of the songs work more as interludes when the action lags than to organically propel it forward. Such musical pauses would be fine if accompanied by dancing like the single delightful song and dance, "Regular Fellas" by the two leads Harvey (Brandon Espinoza) and Manuel (Treat Williams). Except for that brief showstopper the choreography consists mainly of the crew's hoisting ropes and fishing baskets and performing other manly tasks. (No wonder the program credit for choreographer Jerry Mitchell reads "musical staging"). All that fisherman activity is energetic and visually appealing but, unless you're a sailor or fisherman, it's likely to get awfully repetitious. It makes for busyness but will hardly set your feet tapping.

Patrick Cook's book is true to the outlines of Kipling 1897 story about Harvey Cheyne the millionaire's son who tumbles overboard from a luxury liner, is rescued by the crew of a Gloucester schooner and forced to earn his keep. Before being reunited with his father learns to appreciate the bravery and loyalty of the hard-working seamen, especially Manuel whose final act of courage marks the final step in Harvey's rite of passage. The 1928 setting aptly correlates the conflicts that keep both Captain Troop (Michael Mulheren) and Mr. Cheyne (Michael DeVries) from tuning in to the needs of their sons. The fishing boat captain is desperate to hold onto a passing way of life, and the captain of industry is too busy riding the wave of prosperity preceding the great depression .

What Lynne Meadow's staging lacks in terms of the excitement of a seafaring adventure is offset by fine production values. Set designer Derek McLane's blue sky scrim envelops the set, allowing the orchestra to be on stage without distracting. The opening scene aboard the Cheyne-owned luxury cruiser sets up the situation of the father too busy earning the luxuries his son needs less than love and attention. Everything else plays out on a raked, rotating platform that serves as the ship's deck. The scrim, beautifully lit by Brian MacDIVITT, changes to reflect shifts in time, tide and weather. Some silhouetted tableaus of the ensemble take your breath away. The wooden plank-covered stage is a somewhat too bare-bones imaginary sea around the ship and makes one yearn for the great shots of the sea in the original movie .

Treat Williams as the kindly and eventually noble Manuel proves a major asset despite a somewhat underwhelming voice. While not on a par with Spencer Tracy's Oscar-winning Manuel, Williams's Manuel nevertheless wins us over with his great charm and sincerity. Not being familiar with Portugese accents, I won't comment on his, which is probably as much of a made-up brand as was Tracy's. Brandon Espinoza is fine as the poor little rich kid. Michael DeVries is too stiff as Harvey's father but better in his second role as a member of the crew. Michael Mulherrn is convincing and in fine voice as Captain Troop, as is Michael X. Martin as Long Jack who is convinced Harvey is the Jonah dooming the crew to bad luck.

This is definitely family fare, but unlike You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown! it's unlikely to keep toddlers in their seats. The pre-teens and up for whom it's perfectly suited may find this way too slow and quiet.

The biggest flaw in this whole enterprise is that the good stuff -- the big applause getters, the drama and heart-tug -- don't really happen until the shorter Act II. The longer Act I tends to make one yearn for an intermission stretch. In a nutshell, Captains Courageous is a Jekyll and Hyde sort of musical -- with Captain Bland keeping Captain Grand confined below deck too much of the time.

Related Links:
Want to see the movie on which Captains Courageous: The Musical is based? go here . While not a musical it did include such songs as "Ooh, What a Terrible Man,"" Blow a Man Down," and "What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?" In it seventeen-year-old Mickey Rooney plays a tough cabin boy to thirteen-year-old Freddie Barthelemew's Harvey (Brandon Espinoza is sixteen).

Want to read the Rudyard Kipling's book that started it all? go here. Besides being set twenty years earlier, the book also has Harvey a young man of 19 instead of a 12 year-old boy

Another small musical recently reviewed: You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown
Our interview with set designer Derek McLane

Based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling and the film
Book and lyrics by Patrick Cook
Music by Frederick Freyer
Directed by Lynne Meadow
Starring Brandon Espinoza and Treat Williams
With: Erick Buckley, Dick Decareau, Michael DeVries, J. Lee Flynn, Pete Herber, George Kmeck, Norm Lewis, Michael X. Martin, Michael Mulheren, Gary Schwartz, Dan Sharkey, Daniel Siford, Jim Stanek,Erik Stein
Set design: Derek McLane,
Costume design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting design: Brian MacDevitt
Sound design:Otts Munderloh
Orchestration: Jonathan Tunick
Musical staging: Jerry Mitchell
Manhattan Theater Club's Stage 1 at City Center, 131 West 55th St. (581-1212) Previews 1/12/99-2/15/99; opens 2/16/99
Unanimously poor reviews have put the kabash on any hopes of a move to Broadway -- and resulted in an earlier than expected closing on 4/04/99 Reviewed 2/17/99 by Elyse Sommer

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