"Buskers" is a new old-fashioned musical.
How old-fashioned? Well, it dates back to an era when the peak of gallantry was lighting a woman's cigarette. The star, Tommy Tune, plays the ukulele. The staging recalls the pre-special effects days when musicals featured little scenes performed in front of a curtain so the scenery could be changed for the big numbers to come.
How new is "Buskers"? New enough that changes are being made almost daily -- even though the current run at the Mechanic Theatre comes near the end of a six-month pre-Broadway tour.
And how ready is it for the Great White Way? That's a stickier question. Buskers -- as street performers are known in British slang -- eke out a living by pleasing passers-by, and this show's chief busker, Tune, is knocking himself out to please.
With the changes that have been made on the road, the rest of the show is becoming more pleasing as well.
Having first seen "Buskers" near the start of its tour, I can attest to its progress. Though based on a touching 1938 movie called "St. Martin's Lane, the musical -- with a book by A J Carothers and a catchy score by "Mary Poppins' " songwriters Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman -- initially played like a cross between a variety show and a thin vehicle for Tune.
The plot concerns a bittersweet May-December romance between an opportunistic young actress named Libby and Tune's older, seasoned busker, Charley Baxter.
Part of the problem at first was that, despite considerable efforts by talented Darcie Roberts as Libby, the character was so driven and unsympathetic, it was difficult to see what Charley saw in her. That, in turn, may have accounted for an almost misogynous tone that crept misguidedly into the musical.
Now, however, like the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz" -- one of the few children's movies not graced by the songwriting of the Sherman brothers -- Libby has been given a heart. It shows up most notably in a welcome new second-act song, "Why the Tears," in which she questions why fame and fortune don't bring happiness.
Thematically, this is the type of age-old wisdom on which the show is built. It fits the naive charm of busking. But a musical attempting to tell an adult story also needs some sophistication, and "Buskers" has received a boost in that direction from an expanded, re-choreographed dream sequence, also in the second act.
(The show's direction and choreography are credited to Tune's protege, Jeff Calhoun, but the star acknowledges he has had strong input from the start.)
The dream number, which begins with Charley leaning against one of the set's signature lampposts and smoking a cigarette, has a sultry worldliness that suggests the depth of his heartache. This is especially true when he is joined by Libby and their stylish tap duet takes on an urgency that conveys the desperation of their lost love.
The number also succeeds because it contrasts sharply with the many large, exuberant numbers in which Charley is backed up by a 10-member male chorus. Mimicking most of Charley's steps and dressed identically to him -- in tattered black velvet tail coats and trousers over orange long johns -- these chorus members are the physical embodiment of Charley's joy in busking, a function that's now more clearly defined.
Another aspect of the joy of busking is represented by a pair of old timers, played by Ron Kidd as a grandiloquent orator, and the irrepressible Marcia Lewis, whose "busk" is a hula act performed with a show-stealing marionette dog, operated by Phillip Huber. In addition, the old timers' romance serves as a mirror for Charley and Libby, particularly when it comes to encouraging wary Charley to take a chance on love.
In other respects, the show still has kinks in need of straightening. Despite tightening, the first act remains overly long and cumbersome, a difficulty even more apparent in comparison to the fluid second act. Most of Willa Kim's women's costumes are unflattering, and the bevy of lampposts in Tony Walton's set look too insubstantial, swaying when Tune and his busker chorus repeatedly swing on them.
Finally, though there's probably no appropriate way to correct this textually, it's a shame golden-throated Brent Barrett is under-utilized in the minor role of a matinee idol.
Much of the conflict in "Buskers' " plot concerns Libby's desire to pursue a career "inside," on the legitimate stage, vs. Charley's conviction that the real challenge lies in luring reluctant audiences outside, on the street.
In a sense, Broadway can also be seen as "inside," and while this throwback musical may appeal to audiences on the road, it remains to be seen whether slick New Yorkers will cotton to a return to the good old days.
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17; matinees at 2 p.m. Sept. 16, 17, 20 and 23; and 3 p.m. Sept. 24; through Sept. 24
Call: (410) 625-1400