Paul Simon’s ‘Capeman’ Revival Repels Again: Jeremy Gerard

James L. Nederlander
James L. Nederlander. The “The Capeman” concerts were underwritten by Nederlander. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The drizzle turned to a downpour in Central Park last night at dusk. Outside the Delacorte Theater, 2,000 theatergoers got soaked waiting for the second of three free staged concert performances of Paul Simon’s 1998 Broadway fiasco, “The Capeman.” (The final concert is tonight).

It would be more than an hour before the rain subsided enough for the show to go on -- with no sets, minimal costumes, a full orchestra and plenty of dancing.

The Public Theater is presenting the concerts (underwritten by Broadway theater owner and producer James L. Nederlander) in the hope of repeating the success it had in the park three summers ago, when “Hair” eventually moved profitably to Broadway.

From the stage, Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, finally welcomed the weather-thinned crowd to this theater “that belongs to the people of New York City,” for a work by “a great New Yorker.”

I wish his notion of free included respect for a free press. We had all been invited to promote the show with advance stories and column tidbits. Then we were ordered not to review it. So I won’t comment on the staging by Diane Paulus, the director who had worked such magic on “Hair” by striking a perfect balance of respect for the material, a keen focus on character and outstanding musical direction.

Unsavory Failure

But having seen all three iterations of “The Capeman,” I don’t feel constrained from saying that the easing up of the rain made it no less soggy a show. It’s still an unsavory failure, clumsy as art and such a moral muddle that even with its pruned score there’s something to offend everyone.

The subject of “The Capeman” is Salvador Agron, who emigrated from Puerto Rico to Manhattan in the 1950s with his mother, fell in with the Vampires street gang as a teenager and, with an accomplice colorfully dubbed “Umbrella Man,” murdered two innocent Irish boys in retaliation for some perceived turf infraction.

In prison, Agron got religion, though apparently not enough to confess remorse for his actions (possibly because he may have taken the harsher rap for what the Umbrella Man actually did).

The echoes of “West Side Story” are there, but Simon is neither Leonard Bernstein nor Stephen Sondheim, and the greatest weakness of the “Capeman” score remains its lack of theatrical propulsion. The songs (with lyrical assistance from Nobel Prize- winner Derek Walcott, who also wrote the script, most of which has been jettisoned) are second-rate Simon. They’re expository (“I was born in Puerto Rico”), static and leave nothing to show except more exposition.

Bleeding Heart

So “The Capeman” remains more a bleeding-heart dossier than a musical capable of drawing us into a complex story. Simon seems to have responded to his critics by beefing up the part of Agron’s mother, but she’s now just irritating -- a weepy apologist for her sainted son. And after all, the show has yet to be renamed “The Capeman’s Mom.”

The final, free performance is tonight at the Delacorte Theater, enter Central park at E. 79th St. or W. 81st St.

Rating: **

What the Stars Mean:
****       Do Not Miss
***        Excellent
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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