Campbell's libretto is almost more the book for a musical comedy, setting up songs and duets and various ensembles. A duet for the corrupt mayor and his wife called "Togetherness" is reminiscent of Sondheim's "The Little Things You Do Together" from Company, except that it doesn't have a good tune. Musto, a noted song composer, writes colorful tonal music, with identifiable rhythms: here, for example, tarantella and barcarolle, since the location has been updated from czarist Russia to fascist Italy. Numbers pass pleasantly enough, but nothing sticks, nothing sings. The musical material never gets developed or explores character, and so nothing adds up. There's no identifiable musical profile. Where's the real John Musto in all this? The only music that really caught my ear was the little overture to the second act, played onstage, for mandolin, accordion, and tuba.
Not that Campbell's libretto is a work of genius. He can't resist inserting contemporary buzzwords like "refudiate" and "misunderestimate." The mayor, throwing up his arms, announces: "I am not a crook." There are endless Sondheim-ish rhymes (the mayor calls his wife "the shrewdest of shrews/who'd screw for new shoes") desperate for a Sondheim, let alone a Shostakovich. The Inspector is just the opposite of all those great 1920s and '30s musicals that had weak books but unforgettable numbers. Has any musical work — opera or Broadway — ever become a hit only because it had an amusing book?
The Inspector at least has a good cast that works awfully hard (maybe even too hard). Bass-baritone Jake Gardner and, especially, mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood, as the mayor and his wife (like the villainous "mayoress" Angela Lansbury created in Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle), chew up the minimal scenery (production values are far from a major feature of this drab presentation) and spit it out with relish, as in Livengood's tour-de-force "aria" about wanting closetsful of shoes and hats (perhaps modeled on the extended soprano aria in Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti). Other good singers — soprano Meredith Hansen, tenor Neal Ferreira, bass-baritone David Cushing, and especially baritone David Kravitz among them — are amusing but pretty much wasted. Music director David Angus and the orchestra give the score everything they can, and stage director Leon Major keeps things moving along, though not with the lightest touch.
It's good that the Boston Lyric Opera wants to include more contemporary pieces. With The Inspector, the company may want to target an audience that doesn't like contemporary music. But this score is not only unchallenging, it's so thin it seems to be talking down to its audience. Is that ever a good or smart move?
Boston Conservatory's The Apple Tree
Meanwhile, the Boston Conservatory, whose music theater program (now a terminal-degree MFA program) consistently delivers the best musical comedies in town, put on one of its very best shows. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's 1966 The Apple Tree is an unusual piece that's actually three separate one-act musicals. Its original stars — Barbara Harris, Alan Alda, and Larry Blyden —made tours de force out of three startlingly different roles. Act I is based on Mark Twain's "The Diary of Adam and Eve," Act II on Frank Stockton's famous allegorical story "The Lady or the Tiger?", and Act III on what would now be called a graphic novella, Jules Feiffer's Passionella, a satire about a lady chimney sweeper who is obsessed with becoming a movie (or, as she sings it, "moooooo-vie") star.