At one of the key moments in "Snapshots" — the unusual new show at the Northlight Theatre celebrating and re-conceiving the remarkable music of Stephen Schwartz — we watch an older man, whose marriage is in crisis, watching his younger, happier self pace a delivery room. The expectant father is singing "All Good Gifts," originally from "Godspell," and a melody of great beauty.
At that moment, you're struck that the idea behind "Shapshots" (not quite a revue and not quite a full-fledged musical) is a very good one. At the top of "Snapshots," which has a book by David Stern, a middle-aged woman (played by Susie McMonagle) climbs to her attic to get the suitcase that will help her leave her husband (Gene Weygandt). He shows up from work, oblivious as ever, and the two end up looking back through their lives as lovers, parents and take-each-other-for-granted spouses, with the wife's impending exit providing the requisite tension. Their younger selves, variously played by Megan Long, Jess Godwin, Nick Cosgrove and Tony Clarno, act out vistas from their lives, singing Schwartz as they go, often with lyrics newly penned by the composer himself.
The idea works because of the originality of the set-up, but also because Schwartz's songs, filled with aspiration and quizzical wonder, fit the basic premise so well. "All Good Gifts" and "Fathers and Sons" (from "Children of Eden") make perfect paternal sense, just as "Magic to Do" or "Corner of the Sky" work with the young and graduating. I was very touched by how the show uses "Meadowlark" as a picture book that sad-eyed McMonagle finds in the attic, her life flown away. And, thanks in no small measure to some truly superb arrangements from Steve Orich, who also musically directs this strong cast, there are some very clever song pairings that work on one level for Schwartz aficionados and another for everyone else: For example, the upbeat "Lion Tamer" from "The Magic Show" leads beautifully into "I'm Not That Girl" from "Wicked," fused with even more self-doubt.
I could go on about many more such inspired musical choices here, most of which are beautifully sung, especially by Long and Clarno. Schwartz's new lyrics, like all of his old lyrics, are wise, direct and generally superb.
But first let's go back to that delivery room.
Right in the middle of "All Good Gifts," the screened-off mother, in full comedic mode, starts shrieking, in ear-splitting comic pain: "I hate you" she wails, absurdly. Not only does this cheapen the entire experience, but it also completely screws up a song that, given the name on the marquee, it's a pretty good bet people actually came to hear. This is one moment, but emblematic of a serious problem. Cheap staging choices — often involving bad wigs and mugging — pockmark the evening, which is directed by the Los Angeles-based Ken Sawyer. They get in the way of the music and its forthright honesty.
Part of the problem here is that Stern's book spends way too long with the couple's other failed relationships, when we want and need to get to know them (there are, after all, six people playing them). But the bigger issue is simply a lack of truth in the staging. Schwartz's most singular gift is his emotional directness. Throughout his career, he's written things that would terrify other composers who'd worry about looking cute or crassly sentimental. Schwartz just made it work: brilliantly, by forging feelings and situations to which audiences can relate. His music simply does not fit some of the dumb sketches that Sawyer cooks up. Frankly, those egregiously skittish scenarios would be painful even if it did.
Too much of "Snapshots" runs away from Schwartz's heart (the comedy is best left to the songs, which understand the value of a lighter touch). And the bookwriter Stern really has to trust his audience better. At one point, Weygandt's guy talks about the "two-year rule" when it comes to throwing stuff out. We get it. We don't need the explanation of the rule that follows. We also don't need the titles of all of the shows that Schwartz wrote flashed before us, at the top of the show, immediately undermining the reality of designer Jack Magaw's setting that is supposed to be, well, a setting for real lives in crisis.
Schwartz fans will still greatly enjoy the use of his music, especially songs you won't have heard in a while, or that are used here in a way that makes you understand and appreciate them anew. Many great pleasures this way come. And there are moments when these Chicago actors score a few points for truth and honesty: McMonagle is that way throughout and, in the final scene, Weygandt is very moving. "Snapshots" is a sound premise (actually, to my mind, an inspired premise) that could be greatly improved simply by all involved asking two questions: Is this believable? And does this fit with and enhance this beautiful song?
When: Through Oct. 23
Where: North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $25-$65 at 847-673-6300 or northlight.org