One thing I've noticed lately is that my tolerance for flaws in a musical depends on the overall feeling that I'm developing as I'm watching a performance. When a musical, overall, is well-crafted, I'm willing to make allowances for flaws here and there. But when a show isn't taking me along for the ride, I'm more likely to wince at things like slant rhyme, insufficiently developed characters, poor scansion, forced comedy, and the like.
So, for instance, the same flaws that I found forgivable in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson I found increasingly irksome in Love's Labour's Lost, the new musical by the same creative team: composer/lyricist Michael Friedman and librettist/director Alex Timbers. Whereas Bloody Bloody reflected a unity of vision, and a ripe sense of college-boy snark, Love's Labour's Lost, while occasionally diverting, overall feels laboured and just a bit lost.
Of course, Love's Labour's Lost is based on the original Shakespeare play of the same name. The plot is essentially this: The King of Navarre and three college friends make an oath to devote the next three years of their lives to their studies. Enter a local princess and her three ladies in attendance to cock the whole thing up. There's also a subplot involving a random Spaniard, Don Armado, and his amorous attentions towards the local bar wench, and a bunch of subsidiary characters who come in and out to keep the action moving. Or not, as the case is with Timbers' adaptation. There's too much going on, and not enough development of any one particular element.
Timbers' adaptation includes almost all of the original Shakespeare characters, which creates significant problems in character development. To make room for songs, Timbers would have been wise to excise a subplot or two. Indeed, the only character who felt even close to fully fledged was Lord Berowne, played here by the always engaging Colin Donnell. It's really a shame, because the cast of Love's Labour's Lost represents a who's who of current and future Broadway stars, including Daniel Breaker as the King, and Lucas Near-Verbrugge and Bryce Pinkham as his other two Lords. In the female cast we have Rebecca Naomi Jones and Patti Murin, among many other fine performers. It's a shame to see all this talent underused in thinly developed roles. Even worse, we also have the wonderfully gifted Rachel Dratch and Jeff Hiller somewhat wasted here as two supposedly comic academics.
As for the score, I must confess that I've never been a fan of Mr. Friedman's work, despite my admiration for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson as a whole. His songs for Bloody Bloody were poorly wrought but for the most part dramatically effective. His score for Saved was unmemorable at best, clumsy at worst. Here, Friedman's songs are intermittently engaging, but not exactly indelible. (I have friends well-versed in musical theater, however, who disagree with me on this point.)
There are some fairly decent solos and chorus numbers, including "Are You a Man" for Berowne and "Not a Good Idea" for the female cast. There's a somewhat effective song about subtext, in which one character speaks out loud the internal thoughts of two other characters, although How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying handles this device far more adroitly. Too many of the numbers feel thrown in without context or purpose, including a rather quizzical song about a guy who loves cats.
My biggest peeve with Friedman is that he seems incapable of writing, or unwilling to write, a song in which he doesn't force extra syllables into every other line. He seems downright contemptuous of metric convention. One of the most enjoyable moments of the show was when the four central men perform the boy-band number "To Be With You," interpolated here for comic effect. As enjoyable as this number was, it emphasized what many of the other songs in the show were missing: appealing tunes and regular structure.
[SPOILER ALERT: I reveal the end of the show as well as a significant staging surprise in the paragraphs below.]
As director, Timbers does provide some moments of comedic inspiration in between Friedman's often cloddish songs. However, much of the fun feels grafted on through anachronistic quips and asides rather than crafted through sharp characterization or deft wordplay. One number ends with a kick line in the style of "One" from A Chorus Line, a knowing nod to the Public Theater's venerable cash cow. Cute, but hardly organic.
Late in the show, apropos of nothing I could discern, a high-school marching band descends upon the stage. I would imagine it's supposed to be this delightful surprise, but it only served to remind me that the production team didn't have many staging ideas that actually connected to what was going on in the show. At another point, one of the supporting cast members comes out dressed in a costume from Cats, possibly as a callback to the random number earlier in the show about a feline fetish. But it felt tossed in as an ineffective attempt at zany, madcap unpredictability.
By the end of the show, everything appears to be working out happily among the various pairs of lovers, until a messenger arrives to inform the princess that her father has passed away and that she must return to her kingdom at once to assume the throne. The princess and her ladies ask the boys to wait one year and come calling upon them again. It's a rather glum ending, staged rather solemnly, and it brings the momentum of the production to a grinding halt.
Yes, I'm aware that that's how the Shakespeare play ends. But My Fair Lady changes the end of Pygmalion. West Side Story has Juliet alive at the end. In musicals, faithfulness is neither necessary nor desirable. Indeed, slavish fidelity is the refuge of the artistically bereft.