Here's installment number two of my capsule reviews for the 2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Click here to read my first set of reviews. Watch for at least one additional installment, probably two.
The program note for Trouble promises "a show about love, finding it and loosing [sic] it." Yeah, not a very promising way to start. The show has a book by Michael Alvarez, music and lyrics by Ella Grace, and is as bland and unfocused as its title. Trouble comes off as a sort of low-rent Rent, but without the compelling drama or credible characterizations. Like Rent, Trouble wants to capture the voice of its generation. Unlike Rent, Trouble doesn't earn its pathos. Instead of life-and-death stakes, we just get hormones and personality flaws run amok. The show features four teenage couples, three straight and one gay. But these people aren't so much characters as characteristics, with manufactured plot turns to keep the them busy between power ballads. The songs are mostly generic, and often feature unclear dramatic intent, although there are a couple decent attempts at character numbers, one involving one of the gay characters who admits to stalking his class crush, and another about how one of the females sublimates her hostility though baking. The plot basically involves the four couples getting together and breaking up, or breaking up and getting together, and ultimately everything gets resolved in a forced, artificial manner. Characters far too easily forgive genuinely reprehensible acts on the part of their supposed loved ones, and make final choices that seem inconsistent with their character development and that are blissfully unconstrained by reality. In short, Trouble needs a lot of work if it's going to have any life after NYMF.
Stuck isn't quite the mess that Trouble is. The book and the songs by Riley Thomas reflect a lot more skill than those of Trouble, but the story for Stuck is forced and preachy. The show features six people stuck on a New York subway between stations. Over the course of the show, we discover essentially one big thing about each of the characters, with a lot of pseudo-spiritual mumbo jumbo along the way. Like Trouble, Stuck is populated with types rather than people, and before the end of the show, seemingly everyone makes a dark revelation: pregnancies, suicides, rotten childhoods, addiction, etc. These developments come off not so much as character motivation as they do convenient pieces of dramaturgical shorthand. There are certainly a few interesting songs and moments along the way, but the show reflects far too many tired tropes (including "Oh, isn't New York City dirty, smelly, and heartless?" and "Aren't we all a little crazy?") to be truly effective. Also, the pacing of the show is rather jarring. For instance, the drama peaks way too early with interactions and musical passages about the racism inherent in us all, even minorities. Then, immediately after, we have an upbeat comic number called "The Subway Samba" about the irritations and idiosyncrasies of the New York City subway system. The lyrics range from borderline inspired to trite, with such questionable aphorisms as "Strangers or lovers, the only difference is time." (Um...really? So, if I wait long enough, Jeremy Northam will eventually be mine?) Other lyrical groaners include exhortations to "listen not with your ears but with your heart" and inquiries as to "who completes your rhyme?" Then the show ends with pat resolutions and bromides, including the observation that "everyone wants what everyone wants." Um...OK...
He's Not Himself is easily the most promising NYMF show I've seen so far this year. (I still have seven more to go this weekend.) The show has book, music, and lyrics by Marc Silverberg, who also plays one of the five characters in this mostly amiable and madcap noir romp. The plot involves a male meter maid who dreams of the exciting life of a gangster. And whenever he gets hit on the head - which, of course, is frequently - he switches back and forth between his meek and malicious personalities. Yeah, the multiple personalities schtick is rather overused as a plot device, but Silverberg manages to find ways to keep it fresh. The Jekyll and Hyde scenario sets the stage for some rather raucous physical comedy, expertly staged by director Michael Pantone. The farcical set piece involving all five characters in a diamond heist from the local museum was downright masterful. The songs feature just a tad too much slant rhyme and faulty scansion for my taste, and I noticed at least one dangling modifier: "Dressed as a cop, she won't think something's wrong." In this scene, it's not the "she" who's dressed as a cop, but rather the "he" who is singing. But, with a little more development, He's Not Himself could become a comic gem.
Another promising show is Himself and Nora, with book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Brielle. The piece concerns the relationship between James Joyce (played here by Matt Bogart) and his long-time lover and eventual wife, Nora Barnacle (Jessica Burrows). One of the primary plot devices involves Joyce's refusal to marry Barnacle as a protest against the Catholic church. "Marriage is a plot of the church to keep the spirit down," Joyce says at one point in the show. But the constant specter of Joyce's inner conflict with his religious indoctrination is represented by the character of a Catholic priest, visible only to Joyce. The priest provides contrapuntal commentary on Joyce's every move. But Himself and Nora is essentially a love story. Make that a lust story. Part of what makes this particular production engaging are the robust and bawdy performances from Bogart and Burrows, who bravely commit to the leering innuendo and outright vulgarity in Brielle's book and lyrics. The bawdiness gets a bit much after a while, but thankfully at that point we move on to Joyce's struggles with censorship and his sixteen-year quest to find a publisher for Ulysses. Brielle gives Bogart and Burrows reasonably vivid and compelling characters to embody, and the story flows in an engaging fashion with spirited, authentic-sounding dialog. The music is idiomatic Irish, percussive and vibrant, with a certain modern flair in the orchestrations. I was, however, unfortunately reminded of February House, another recent musical that adopts the superficial aspects of the lives of major literary figures without really giving them anything profound to say, although Himself and Nora is somewhat more successful in this respect. Even so, with a bit more work on some plot holes here and some tonal inconsistencies there, Himself and Nora could eventually make for a satisfying musical work.