I've been hearing some dismissive chatter about this one on my blog and elsewhere, but I genuinely enjoyed the new Off-Broadway musical Romantic Poetry, which opened last night at the Manhattan Theater Club's Stage 1 at the New York City Center. It's certainly not an immediately accessible musical, and probably not much of a crowd-pleaser, but the new tuner is nonetheless ambitious and intermittently successful.
Playwright John Patrick Shanley makes a stylized entry into musical theater with this show. Its arch, heightened style reminds me of the work of William Finn and James Lapine in its denial of conventional storytelling. Shanley also seems to bring out the arty side of composer Henry Krieger, who frankly has never been better: his score here is less showy, less derivative than the ones he composed for Side Show and The Tap Dance Kid, and significantly more musically ambitious than his work on Dreamgirls. It just goes to show how a talented collaborator can bring out the best in a composer. (It makes me wonder what would happen if Andrew Lloyd Webber ever found another lyricist half as good as Tim Rice. Ditto Frank Wildhorn.)
The story of Romantic Poetry involves two central couples and two additional ex-husbands. It would be a shame to ruin the show by going into more detail, but suffice it to say that while Romantic Poetry is short on actual plot, it's heavy on exaggerated characterization, which is mostly successful thanks to a universally strong cast. Ivan Hernandez and Emily Swallow are very appealing as the central couple, and Mark Linn-Baker is funny and affecting as ex-husband number two. Jeb Brown as ex-husband number one makes a strong first impression, but later fades into generic character acting, but that's probably more a function of Shanley's writing, which sort of leaves Brown with nothing interesting or useful to do in the latter part of the show.
The basic themes of the show are pretty cliché: not settling for a safe, mundane life, but rather sticking with the beauty/art that your soul longs to create. Yeah, on paper, it's a cringe-inducing bore, but Shanley almost makes it work through stylized dialog and arch direction. Think a sort of post-modern Guys and Dolls, a "Moonstruck" with music. For a musical-theater neophyte, Shanley creates some very effective lyrics, although his rhyme schemes are often primitive, his prosody isn't always perfect, and he throws in some extra graces notes here and there to accommodate an extra word or two. But on the whole, the score works.
In Act 2, the edges begin to fray considerably. The theme of comfort versus passion becomes more strident, and the treatment more clumsy. I found my attention waning during a succession of seemingly obligatory genre numbers (the torch song, the gospel number, etc.). The songs become less interesting dramatically, although with regularity Shanley and Krieger return to form with a quirky character number.
Overall, Romantic Poetry is a show with great, great promise, despite your typical and ultimately fixable second-act trouble. The show plays until December 28th, and I say, give it a chance. It's likely going to be a very divisive show among theater types, and it's cranky and dyspeptic at times. But the creators take some admirable chances, and more often than not, they hit the mark. That's more than I can say for the creators of most of the Off-Broadway musicals I've seen over the last few years.