Sean Fri and Coleen Sextonin Heat Lightning
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Sean Fri and Coleen Sexton
in Heat Lightning
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
There are few things more frustrating than watching talented actors struggle through mediocre material, especially when they have not been adequately directed. This is the sad fact of Heat Lightning, a new musical playing at the Kirk on Theatre Row.

To be fair, there are a couple of good songs in the show, an intermissionless, 80-minute affair with music and lyrics by George Griggs and a book by Griggs and Paul Andrew Perez. The premise itself has laugh potential but, unfortunately and inexplicably, the piece is presented with a bent toward seriousness. Being forced to watch the statuesque, poised, and vocally gifted Coleen Sexton (previously seen in Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway) wade into yet another mediocre song as Aurora, a temptress who baits a guy named Seth (Sean Fri) into cheating on his wife, is disheartening. At times, Sexton manages to turn her anger at this unfinished project into a real rage that fires her singing, even if she has to deliver lyrics like: "I thought we'd have a life together / All that's changed are your socks and the weather."

The plot, such as it is, centers on Seth. He's a car salesman bored with his wife, his life (a rhyme that inevitably appears in the lyrics), and everything in it except his Thursday-night gig at the local rock club. Playing regular-Joe music that indicates little talent, this balding, hapless, Elvis wanna-be falls for Aurora as a means of escape from his marriage to Cris -- a thankless role that is carried off by the quietly powerful Laura Marie Duncan.

The other promising presence onstage is Jackie Seiden as one of the two Furies, the backup singers in Seth's shabby band. Singing with verve and moving as well as can be hoped for given what seems to have been an absence of direction by Jeremy Dobrish, Seiden is one of the few oases of ability onstage. In contrast, Fri fails to hit a third of the notes he tries for.

That Heat Lightning ends abruptly and awkwardly is only to be expected; there are no surprises in the script or in the lyrics, which are astonishingly mundane. Griggs, a Yale University composer/lyricist-in-residence, and his co-writer may have excused such leaden lines as "I wanna get a tattoo of a dagger / I wanna hop around like Mick Jagger" with the rationalization that popular musicals are dumb. But at a time when clever shows like Urinetown and Hairspray are making bank on the difference between goofy-witty and goofy-awful, a show like this one makes us hope that no student at Yale or anywhere else is learning Griggs's method of crafting a tuner.

Choreographer Tesha Buss may still be learning her trade and should have had a chance to develop further before taking on material like this. As for Dobrish: He has done better work, as have most of the others involved. The onstage band is actually quite listenable; it's a rock combo featuring some nifty violin by Lyris Hung and accomplished guitar by Tommy Russo. But, in general, Heat Lightning gives the impression of being at the first-run-through stage.