Here's round-up number three, out of four, of my reviews of the shows at this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). As in my previous review round-ups, there's a fairly wide range of quality represented here, but in this batch, most of the shows were aiming at comedy.
The operative word here is "aiming." Some hit a comedic bulls-eye, while others missed the target entirely, hitting a wayward barnyard animal in a completely different county. As any writer, actor, director, or any other person in the business will tell you, comedy is hard. It doesn't seem hard when you're watching it, because the best comedy feels effortless. But, chances are, a whole lot of effort went into that seeming effortlessness, as the following shows will bear witness to.
Stay tuned for my final batch of reviews in the days to come.
Legacy Falls - I genuinely never thought that I would so thoroughly enjoy a musical about a soap opera, of all things. But, as I've said many times, it's all about execution. And Legacy Falls, while not without its flaws, has a tremendous amount going for it: an appealing score (music and lyrics by James Burn) rich characterizations, and a genuinely humorous book (by Burn and Ian Poitier). The plot concerns the efforts of the TV show's new producer to save the thirty-year-old program from cancellation. Rumors abound that some catastrophic event will occur in the plot of the soap to get rid of some old faces and make room for new blood. Some of the actors, including the show's male lead, have been with the show since its inception. Just as he's wondering whether it's time to move on, he falls in love with a younger man who works for the TV show's sponsor. Word gets out about the formerly closeted star, and the plot thickens both on and off the screen. The appeal of Legacy Falls the musical lies both in the genuinely lovely moments for the central lovers, as well as in some terrific numbers for the delightfully bitchy female soap stars. The show could use some work: there's a bit too much slant rhyme for my taste, and act two could use a bit of pruning. But, on the whole, Legacy Falls is an eminently enjoyable musical that I hope to see have a significant life after NYMF.
Mother Divine - It sounded pretty good on paper: Father Divine is a charismatic Harlem preacher during the Depression. His wife, Mother Divine, becomes gravely ill, but since he's supposed to be this faith healer, he hides her away in a rundown hospital. When Mother Divine passes on, Father tries to pass off this buxom blond as the new fleshly incarnation of his wife, and Mother comes back from the afterlife to set things straight. You'd think with this setup the show might be replete with rousing gospel numbers and the comedic wisdom of some sassy African American women, neck rolls and all. Instead we get some rather thin characterizations, songs with very little shape or craft, and many forced attempts at comic business. (Book and lyrics are by Laurel Klinger Vartabedian, music by Bill Evans.) Particularly painful were the would-be comic ministrations of Mother Divine and her dealings with a cartoonish IRS agent, played here but the normally reliable Howie Michael Smith. But because the scenes are underwritten and the direction almost nonexistent, Smith is forced into paroxysms of comic desperation in an ill-fated effort to make the scenes work. The show gains a bit of momentum when Mother Divine comes back via seance at the end of act one, but by that point the damage is done. One decent number can't redeem an act that's otherwise been devoid of craft.
Boys Will Be Boys - The first thing I noticed when I sat down to watch Boys Will Be Boys was a sign over the set that said "American Legion, Post 69." Uh-oh, I thought. Is that an example of the level of wit we could expect from the show? Sadly, yes. The premise is appealing enough: Four gay guys and a gal pal have supposedly put together this review as a benefit for "Gay-DD," the inability to focus on any trend for more than a few weeks. Not bad. But what follows often feels like a never-ending barrage of bitchery and labored puns about "openings," "holes," "balls," and "wood." There's even an ode to Viagra called...wait for it..."You Lift Me Up." The show is not without charm, nor the writing without craft. The book and lyrics are by Joe Miloscia, the music by Kenneth Kacmar. Miloscia seems at his best when trafficking in pastiche, as when he crafts genuinely witty homages to "Some People" from Gypsy and "Somewhere That's Green" from Little Shop of Horrors. And there are some moving moments in the show, particularly a very sweet song called "A Giant in My Eyes," the title of which is thankfully not a double entendre. But the benefit concept just sort of peters out, and the final number is rather limp. (Sorry. Couldn't help myself.) Still, the show is not without charm, and might find opportunities for summer runs in Provincetown or other gay havens.
The Pirates of Finance - As you can probably tell from the title, The Pirates of Finance is based on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Specifically, author Charles Veley has taken the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan and crafted new lyrics to tell a modern comic tale of financial misdeeds and derring-do. Veley would seem to be quite the G&S aficionado, and he seems to have the narrative and physical chops to do Sir Arthur Sullivan's music a certain amount of justice. The story features an idealistic young man, Frederick Freemarket, who has just inherited a Wall Street financial company from his uncle. The financial markets are in crisis, but Frederick's uncle, before he died, invented a "cash machine" that can sort through all of the worthless derivatives in the marketplace and find buyers for them. Enter a corporate raider called Mr. Behemoth who openly plots to take over the company and proceed to rule the world. That's certainly a setup of which Sir William Schwenck Gilbert would approve. Some of Veley's plot logic felt a bit wonky, even for a G&S piece. Gilbert and Sullivan shows may often be ridiculous, but at least the made a certain offbeat sense. Sometimes Veley's characters react in ways that seem inconsistent with their development, as when the normally placid Freemarket starts singing about perpetrating violence in a passage based on "Away, Away" from The Pirates of Penzance. At other times, the point of an entire number will remain opaque, as when the female CFO is supposedly trying to distract Behemoth with something tantalizing about a file full of toxic assets. Honestly, I have no idea what was going on here. But the show, for the most part, shows promise, and features some very apt repurposing of Sullivan's music. The show could benefit from being much shorter, maybe ninety minutes with no intermission, as some of the comic business grows attenuated. But, true to the spirit of G&S, the show ends with a series of ridiculous revelations and coincidences that lovingly strain credulity. But, this time, the nonsense makes sense.