Hunter Foster and company in Happiness
(© Paul Kolnik)
Hunter Foster and company in Happiness
(© Paul Kolnik)
For a sweet little fable about the need to seize the day and savor each moment, the new musical Happiness at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater sure packs a lot of pizzazz. It's the product of a dream team: book by John Weidman, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie (of Grey Gardens), and direction and choreography by Tony Award winner Susan Stroman. While the foremost pitfall of an exercise of this sort, beyond miniaturizing major themes, is the tendency to sappiness, the creators and their superb cast skirt both dangers with unceasing snap and polish.

The opening scene quickly segues from Zack, a young lawyer (Sebastian Arcelus) powering up for "make or break" day in court to a frantic street scene in which Miguel (Miguel Cervantes) is bike-messengering a fighting cock; the stylish Gina (Jenny Powers) is fending off lewd comments by construction workers; and the elderly Helen (Phyllis Somerville) sits patiently in her wheelchair beside a kiosk as her attendant loads up on lottery tickets.

We also meet Neil and Cindy (Robert Petkoff and Pearl Sun), an interracial pair of doctors who rattle off a to-do list preparatory to a parental visit, Kevin a gentle-mannered doorman (Fred Applegate) who cedes his emergency-room slot to a junkie, Maurice (pronounced Morris), an imposing Leon Talleyesque decorator (Ken Page) who tries in vain to hail a cab, and Arlene (Joanna Gleason), an ultraconservative talk show host who imperiously orders a fruit shake while fuming about "third World workers." There's a whole hell of a lot going on in this opening number, which keeps reverting to the refrain "Just Not Right Now." The subtext? Stay on task at all costs, even if it means delaying gratification indefinitely.

Quite suddenly, though, this well-organized chaos comes to a screeching halt as the group find themselves trapped in a stalled subway car (nicely captured by set designer Thomas Lynch's schematic approximation). Soon, tiffs break out among the captives as their collective impatience mounts. True to life, a conductor's announcement -- delivered downstage by the slyly grinning Hunter Foster -- devolves into gibberish. And when he materializes in the car mid-blackout with no visible means of ingress, it quickly becomes clear, to the characters and audience alike, that this is no ordinary "subway ride from hell."

Borrowing fancies from Thornton Wilder, with a soupcon of Jean-Paul Sartre thrown in for good measure, Happiness then finds felicitous -- and often hilarious -- ways to ponder the weighty mysteries of fate and mortality. The primary device is the use of flashbacks, which span several eras; Helen, for instance, summons a World War II USO canteen, a guaranteed heart-tugger as well as peppy dance number. In kaleidoscopic structures of this sort, psychological depth is often stinted, but not so here, thanks to Weidman's tightly focused dialogue and Korie's clever, concise lyrics.

As ever, the bad guys get all the best lines, and as the rabid right-winger Arlene, Gleason has a blast lobbing zingers at her fellow detainees. Foster is more subtly snarky, and his self-revelatory numbers -- "Blips" and "Step Up the Ladder" -- are among the show's most captivating. There's also "The Boy Inside Your Eyes," the decorator's tribute to a loved one lost to AIDS -- a vignette which encapsulates in just a few poignant verses, the emotional wallop of Angels in America -- but your own favorite in this crowded field may have a lot to do with your own personal vision of happiness.