The major flaws of Suddenly Hope lie in the show's book. Librettists Gary Bonasorte, Laurence Holzman, and Felicia Needleman stay a half-beat behind their audience through most of the action, well aware of the script's failings (as their propensity to second-guess themselves in song consistently points out). Billed as "an optimistic message at this time of crisis in the Middle East," the show takes the attitude that there is nothing wrong in that troubled part of the world that can't be resolved at a well-catered cocktail party. Thus we see a half-century of conflict distilled and presented in the language of musical comedy.
Inspired by Morris Bernstein's orchestral work Israel, Oh Israel, this new musical -- produced by Bernstein's son and featuring additional music by Kyle Rosen -- focuses on a New York actress/waitress named Hope Levine. The action begins on a really bad day for Hope: She blows the audition referenced above, loses her job, catches her boyfriend in bed with another woman, and learns that her sister has been missing for two weeks in Jerusalem, where she had been studying. All of this happens in the course of an upbeat ditty that sets the tone for the evening by focusing on the charms of a double chocolate mocha.
Her sister's plight elicits the following response from Hope: "Like I need one more thing to sweat about!" Unfortunately, Amy's disappearance never adds up to much more than a poorly contrived plot device. Hope's story is really a love story, and Amy's problems -- indeed, the problems of the Middle East -- are presented here as mere complications standing in the way of a happily-ever-after ending for Hope and her love interest, David.
In a key song indicative of the libretto's willingness to trivialize its story, Hope and David first meet through a chance encounter at the airport upon her arrival in Jerusalem. David's ballad "Can't Let It Slip Away" uses the baggage claim carousel as a metaphor for love. "It's going by too fast," he sings romantically, "blink and it will have passed. There it is at last."
The change of locale to the Middle East is effectively indicated by Lauren Helpern's set as the skyline of New York City is replaced by the crumbling walls of Jerusalem. The broken set pieces evoke the fragmented identity and the "battlefield" sense of the city in a way that the rest of the production never does. Directed by Annette Jolles, Suddenly Hope is informed by a sitcom sensibility, as if the actors have been instructed to camp it up and keep it light at all costs. There is never any sense of urgency about finding Amy or about the characters dodging the bombs that keep going off around the city. To give voice to an Arab perspective, we have Professor Alfandi and his terrorist son Ahmed. Unfortunately, both are caricatures at opposites ends of the spectrum. Having lost their daughter/sister at the hands of an Israeli radical during a peace rally, Alfandi teaches people to overcome hatred while Ahmed turns to terrorism.
Conveniently, Hope's love interest is an influential figure in the Israeli army, and Hope seems to interpret the explosions around the city as the fireworks of romance. "You're on a moonlit terrace / A bomb goes off / You don't know what to do / And suddenly you're kissing a man / Who's a stranger to you," she sings in "This Place."
A characteristic song is "Shabbat Dinner," which blends an acknowledgment of the inherent risks of daily life in the Middle East with the reality that "We still have to eat." It's a worthy concept, but the juxtaposition of imminent danger with the logistics of the dinner table for supposedly comic effect falls flat. Hope gets a call from Amy just before sitting down to dinner with David and his family, leading to lyrics such as "Was she panic-stricken? / Pass the chicken" and "I won't let you risk it / Sweetheart, have some brisket."
The show's most powerful number is the first act finale, "Song of Prayer," featuring a strong ensemble full of the passion that has heretofore been absent in the principal characters. Here, the broken set pieces join together to form the Western Wall or Wailing Wall, and the image resonates. (Unfortunately, at the performance under review, the drama of the moment was obscured when an act-ending gunshot was inadvertently replaced with the wrong sound effect: a ringing cell phone. The bewildered audience spent the intermission in speculation.)
George Dvorsky is equally strong as David, making the most of equally insipid lyrics by somehow communicating the emotions that are skimmed over by the words. David and Hope's romantic resolution comes in the song "Amazing," wherein Dvorsky must pull off lines such as, "You really are amazing / And isn't it amazing / That destiny brought amazing you to me somehow / To share a life of happiness now."
The 14-member cast is capable throughout, heroically forging on in the face of a nearly nonsensical script and uninspired direction. If nothing else, Suddenly Hope showcases consistently strong performances and fine voices across the board. Erin Maguire and A.J. Irvin offer steady support as David's brother and sister-in-law. Alice Evans shines as David's mother, Ruth, who comes up with the "cocktail party for peace" concept and who makes the Martha Stewart School of Diplomacy bearable, if not believable. Rachel Anton unleashes a second-act showstopper that makes us wish she had been given more chances to display her voice.
Suddenly Hope is rife with missed opportunities. Bernstein's music is evocative but the show on the whole has been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator of musical theater clichés. The production is salvaged only by the strength of the performers, all well worth watching and clearly worthy of a more substantial vehicle.