Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Next to Mediocre

As a former volunteer usher for the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center (home to the Civic Light Opera), I was excited to hear that it would be the location of the world premiere of the new musical Twice Upon a Time, slated to open at some point in the West End and possibly Broadway. Although after seeing the show, I'm not sure I should get my hopes up about being able to brag that I saw a show in my little corner of California before it went to London.

Previews began on Feb. 13 and opening night was Feb. 16 (the night I saw it). The show is set to close on March 2. The show is written and directed by Ray Cooney with music by Chris Walker and lyrics by Mary Stewart-David. I know workshops are a work in progress, but I was expecting something that I could at least picture eventually making its way to London, especially since Cooney is already a well-established British playwright.

The flimsy plot is centered around Steven (Brandon Michael Perkins), who lives in London and is a successful lawyer with a smoking problem. At his boss's insistence, he goes to a psychiatrist who uses hypnosis to get Steven to quit. His methods send Steven back to a former life as a Chicago gangster named Johnny. From then on, any wave of an object can send Steven back to Chicago and each time we have to deal with nauseating light flashes and echoes of the last dialogue he hears. This is where it gets confusing. Is he watching his old life? Is he a part of it? Can he actually change the course of Johnny's history? I still don't know the answer to these questions. In any case, Johnny falls in love with his mob boss' girlfriend Ruby (Misty Cotton), but in the present Steven is in engaged to Barbara (Jennifer Malenke), his boss's daughter. It is hard to get attached to any of the characters because we are never with them for long enough to really grasp what's going on or why they feel the they do for each other.

The show has an old-fashioned feel, which pays homage to Guys and Dolls with its gangsters singing and dancing routines. One could argue that a great storyline is not necessary. In how many shows does the love story show any real development? But usually those musicals, like say Anything Goes, have scores written by brilliant songwriters, like say Cole Porter. The score here, while enjoyable, especially the lovely ballad "The Truth About Ruby," is not enough to sustain the show.

Neither are the individual great scenes, which don't really tie together as a whole. These include an especially hilarious trip to the wedding caterers and an adorable dance number with Millicent Martin (whose character is pretty extraneous, but fun to watch).

Overall, the cast is strong. Perkins is charming in his double duty, but I still do not understand the appeal of Cotton, who stars in almost every Civic Light Opera production. Her voice is nothing special and her acting is cold. (Full disclosure: There are a few critically acclaimed actors that I've never understood the appeal of, like Bernadette Peters, so I might be missing something here.) The ensemble numbers are very well done, and a few supporting characters were particularly talented--Danny Bolero as Dr. Patel for his vocal work and Matt Bezmarevich as the catering manager for his comedic work.

This show may never be a smash hit, but with some plot changes and tightening and a new leading lady, it could be decent. On second thought, it might make it to London. After all, Starlight Express did well over there.

On the opposite coast, Next to Normal is another show with rumors of an eventual Broadway transfer. The off-Broadway show already has a cult following and got decent reviews, even after various workshops under the title Feeling Electric, it's still a mess.

This latest incarnation, directed by Michael Greif, who has a good track record with RENT and Grey Gardens, officially opened at the Second Stage Theatre on Feb. 13 and is set to close on March 16.

Dan (Brian d'Arcy James) and Diana (Alice Ripley) are parents to Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) and Gabe (Aaron Tveit). Natalie is dating Henry (Adam Chandler-Berat) and their relationship often mirrors that of her parents. Although Henry is the most endearing character, his presence takes away from getting too deep into other relationships, which are the heart of the story. I can't talk much about the plot without giving too much away, which is exactly the problem--it's too gimmicky. If you want to tell a story about manic-depression and how it affects a family, just do it without relying on cliche plot surprises and ridiculous musical numbers.

There is a lot about this show to like, which is what makes it so frustrating to watch. I so wanted it to be better. Kevin Adams lighting combined with Mark Wendland's three-tiered set is visually stunning. Tom Kitt's adrenaline-pumping rock score is strong, if only it wasn't undercut by Brian Yorkey's often insufferable lyrics. James does stupendous vocal work as always and he gives his character as much depth as he can in the scenes he is in. Having never seen Ripley, but having heard of her talent, I was disappointed with her voice, which was often nasally, but her acting made up for it. The young actors are also talented in the vocal department, but the acting is sometimes too over-the-top. Tveit is probably going to be a Broadway teen heartthrob a la the Spring Awakening kids, but his moves sometimes make Zac Efron's "Bet on It" look subtle. Damiano is also prone to this kind of arm flailing. Chandler-Berat was the most real on stage, however unnecessary his role.

A Broadway-transfer wouldn't be the worst thing, but before then, this show needs to decide what it wants to be. A few friends of mine were commenting on the sincerity of the musical Spring Awakening. I actually found the sincerity of that show refreshing, but in Next to Normal, some of the scenes are so earnest and then it will turn to satire with a Costco musical number. I'm all for a musical that deals with manic depression, but all those involved need to have more confidence in the story they are telling. And please, don't ever think that shock therapy should be put to music.

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