BEGGAR’S HOLIDAY, Pegasus Players. Bolstered by witty lyrics by John Latouche and Dale Wasserman, Duke Ellington’s recently resurrected score for Beggar’s Holiday is a stunningly versatile piece of work, with deceptively complex melodies and fiendish key changes combining to create wonderfully tuneful songs. Ellington’s ditties from this forgotten 1946 Broadway musical, sung here by Pegasus Players’ generally first-rate vocalists, can stand alongside his best-known work. If only Pegasus had chopped out the lame book, the cheesy dance numbers, and the groan-inducing comedy scenes.

Based on John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and updated by Wasserman, who wrote the 1946 edition, the current Beggar’s Holiday portrays the fantasies of a blind homeless man who imagines himself a charming rake, duping corrupt city authorities and the ladies who love him. Set on the streets of a southern metropolis, the script and songs poke fun at the rich and powerful and champion the rights of America’s disenfranchised criminals, prostitutes, and lowlifes. In this production, numbers like “Tomorrow Mountain” and “The Wrong Side of the Railroad Tracks” are loaded with power and vitality.

But Wasserman’s confused modernization of the script doesn’t work. Purportedly current references to “Generation X” and the like misfire badly and make the show seem dated and out of touch. And though he may have intended his script to tackle controversial topics, it’s irritatingly tame and safe. Director Dennis Courtney’s choreography is hopelessly cliched, more suited to shipboard dinner theater than social satire. As for the comedy sequences, let’s just say the cast are better singers than actors.

Too bad. With such a rich score and talented singers this could have been a blisteringly relevant piece of theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Studio.