Jessica Bogart and Matt Bogart
in Romance / Romance
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Jessica Bogart and Matt Bogart
in Romance / Romance
(© Gerry Goodstein)
In theory, it's not a good idea to put a chamber musical in a ballroom. It's not such a great notion in practice, either, if the Paper Mill Playhouse revival of Barry Harman and Keith Herrmann's 1988 Broadway success Romance / Romance is any indication.

The theater isn't stadium-sized, but it might as well be, considering how quickly the required charm dissipates in the two one-acts that make up the bill -- this despite energetically effortless playing by recently-married leads Matt and Jessica Bogart (she used to perform as Jessica Boevers) and supporting duo Danette Holden and Mark Ledbetter.

What's happened in this production -- which Mark S. Hoebee has directed and choreographed, and David Zinn has filled with set pieces meant to disguise the property's modest dimensions -- is that the script's deficiencies have been exposed. In the curtain-raiser, it's a matter of the action looking as if it's abandoned in the middle of a wide, wide playing area, while in the show's second half, a more severe problem involving a lack of authorial conviction now comes through.

In their determination to examine the broad subject of romance, Harman and Herrmann adapted Arthur Schnitzler's short story "The Little Comedy" and Jules Renard's play "Pain de Ménage." In the first piece, jaded Vienna swells Alfred Von Wilmers and Josefine Weninger, equally elegant in Zinn's finery, decide to masquerade as a poet and a shop girl in order to meet new lovers. Their double duplicity works until they reveal who they really are and wind up hoist on their own petard.

The Alfred-Josephine dalliance is really just an anecdote. Even decorated with a series of extremely well-crafted songs and augmented by another waltzing couple (Holden and Ledbetter), the piece still needs to be kept in check. Instead, it's been pumped up like a near-to-bursting helium balloon and comes off like an under-achieving version of A Little Night Music. And while the 11 ditties that Harman and Herrmann supplied for the ethereal tale are pleasant, they're not "Send in the Clowns."

The second-act piece, "Summer Share," has a more severe drawback. Sam (Matt Bogart) and Monica (Jessica Bogart) are best friends who've taken a vacation house -- and a spacious one at that -- with their respective spouses, Barb (Holden) and Lenny (Ledbetter). On their first night in the place, Sam and Monica stay up later than their mates. After schmoozing comfortably with each other, they wonder if they ought to take their friendship a step farther.

Do they? It's not for this review to say, beyond reporting that Harman and Herrmann boldly raise probing issues on fidelity and sexual attraction and then timidly back away from the ramifications. In the process, however, they do provide the show's best songs: one for her ("How Did I End Up Here?") and one for him ("Words He Didn't Say").

The Bogarts play extremely well together, and they are certainly pretty, whether putting on sophisticated airs in the first part or portraying agitated Upper West Side New Yorkers in the second. Plus, they both have luscious voices, which must make their singing in the shower something that the neighbors don't mind. Indeed, his rendition of "Words He Didn't Say" is good enough to send every nightclub singer in town in search of the sheet music.

Moreover, both Bogarts act with archness or ease, depending on the immediate requirements; and they aren't flat-footed when the band, under John O'Neill's baton, strikes up a waltz. Nor are Holden and Ledbetter, although she's lighter on her feet than he is. They shine whenever they're in the spotlight, and are particularly amusing when playing geezers rasping "My Love for You" in a fantasy sequence.

Received show-biz wisdom has it that the year Romance / Romance bowed, it was "overshadowed" by The Phantom of the Opera and Into the Woods. That was then; this is now, when it's ironically being overshadowed by itself.