Wildhorn's shows have typically been born in the nation's regional theaters, which may be why his latest effort, Waiting for the Moon, is having its world premiere at the Lenape Regional Performing Arts Center in Marlton, New Jersey. While the score and Jack Murphy's book are clearly a work-in-progress, Lenape's producing artistic director Vincent Marini's has given the show a polished and wonderfully fluid production.
As with Wildhorn's previous works, Waiting for the Moon focuses on larger-than-life characters -- in this case, Jazz Age icons F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, played by Jarrod Emick and Lauren Kennedy. Charismatic, talented, combustible, and-for a time-enormously rich, the Fitzgeralds were the glamour couple of their time. After Scott's first novel made the young writer an overnight literary sensation, the pair became the toast of Gotham. The society pages couldn't get enough of them; there wasn't a party they didn't attend, a dime they didn't spend, or a drink they didn't down.
These exhilarating times are captured in an effusive, infectiously jazzy score that combines some of Wildhorn's best music with Murphy's clever lyrics. "Money to Burn," a rousing ode to decadence, blissfully evokes a nation drunk on optimism. When Scott sings "living on the edge improves one's balance," little does he realize that his equilibrium will soon be disrupted by his own battle with alcoholism and Zelda's long bout with mental illness.
When his second book sells poorly and his third novel (the now-legendary The Great Gatsby) sells even worse, the couple's fall is as fast as their ascent. The Fitzgeralds' roller-coaster ride of fame, fortune, and decline makes for an entertaining, almost giddily-paced first act -- but when things begin to fall apart for Scott and Zelda, the same things happens to the musical. Scott attempts to forge a new career as a Hollywood screenwriter but the magic is gone from his life, and the depiction of his time in Hollywood feels awkward and under-developed.
The production, so captivating in the first act, struggles to find its rhythm in the second. Murphy's lyrics turn toward cliché, particularly in the ordinary and uninspiring "Heat of the Night." The chief dramatic problem for Wildhorn and Murphy is that Scott died in 1940 and, for the last eight years of her life, Zelda lived in a mental institution. (The scenes in which she tells her story to a reporter are particularly lethargic.) Still, Waiting for the Moon is nothing if not romantic. At its core, it's a love story, and Wildhorn isn't about to allow something as insignificant as Scott's death to keep the couple apart. The conclusion is certainly sentimental but is handled so adeptly that their reunion still manages to evoke real emotion.
Moon has a lot going for it. Rob Odorisio's scenic design, Kim Scharnberg's orchestrations, Ron Melrose's music direction, and Janine McCabe's costumes are all first-rate, while Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography and Howell Binkley's lighting are nothing short of superb. Emick, who won a Tony Award for Damn Yankees, is appropriately tortured as Scott. But, most unfortunately, Kennedy gives a pedestrian performance; she fails to communicate either the depth or complexity of Zelda's illness, and her voice is uncomfortably shrill at times. In the long run, Waiting for the Moon is really Zelda's story, so Wildhorn and Murphy might want to find the right performer for the role before moving this show forward.