'Heidi' makes a pleasant TV musical

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I am not too sure how many youngsters were reading "Heidi" when I was first reading "Bomba the Jungle Boy," but I am sure that the number of fans of Johanna Spyri's 1880 novel today cannot be too great. But it has appeared on film quite often; and in 1955, it was made into one of several versions for television.

This production is now part of the wonderful VAI series of vintage musicals shown on TV in the middle of the last century; and it makes for some very entertaining viewing – with a very interesting cast.

Here is the story of the little girl Heidi (Jeannie Carson), brought by her mean old Aunt Dete (Jo Van Fleet) to live at the top of the Alps with Heidi's reclusive Grandfather (Richard Eastham), whose antisocial behavior begins to thaw through Heidi's goodness. She also spends the time with a shepherd named Peter (Wally Cox). Dete finds a job for Heidi as a companion for a crippled girl, Klara (Natalie Wood) in Frankfort, and the two become fast friends, despite the hostility of Klara's housemaid Frau Rottenmeier, (Elsa Lanchester).

When found walking in her sleep, Heidi is sent back to her Grandfather, but Klara is sent to Heidi, where she is cured. Of course, some might consider this work today as one of appalling sentimentality; but that's the way many novels were back then. And considering what passes for literature today, I might say we could use some of that sentimentality back with us.

The music is "based on the themes of Robert Schumann" by Clay Warnick, who also composed original music for the dance sequences (if I read the credits correctly). Yes, "Traumerei" is much used, here called "Greener Pastures." The lyrics are by Carolyn Leigh and the script is by William Friedberg and Neil Simon. Max Liebman was producer and director for this series of original musicals and adaptations of stage plays.

While Carson and Wood look too old for their parts, they are at least sincere if not great actresses. Cox is simply mild. But Lanchester is as always a hoot, while Eastham is an excellent basso who was Ezio Pinza's standby in the original run of "South Pacific." The "Yodelling Song" and "Yodel-dee Hi" that open the first and third act respectively are musical lyrics at their worst; and indeed most of the lyrics are Broadway-generic.

But the 80 minutes pass by genially, if one puts oneself into a 1955 frame of mind. Thanks again, VAI.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts and Entertainment section. Visit franklinbehrens.com for past reviews.


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