This so-called "cleanest show about sex in the history of musical comedy" has arrived at the Peter Norton Theater -- home of the much more refined Signature Theater -- amidst much hoopla, both positive and negative. In what had to have been a much different production, Dr. Sex was a huge success in Chicago two years ago, earning seven Joseph Jefferson Awards including Best Musical. But its New York engagement has had a rocky road, with director Pamela Hunt leaving the production just a couple of weeks ago. (No director is credited for the final product, although Ethan McSweeny has admitted to coming in and helping out.)
Truth to be told, the show -- rudderless or not -- moves along fairly briskly, aided by Marc Esposito's serviceable if uninspired choreography. And Bortniker is capable of writing snappy lyrics and hummable melodies, though not often in the same song. The show's opener "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6" is one of the few numbers that delivers on both counts, and "They Tell You Everything" is a fine, traditional song-and-dance number. Fans of the musical A Class Act won't be surprised to learn that Bortniker is a graduate of the BMI/Lehman Engel Workshop, since he's followed the master's instructions to vary the musical diet -- the charm song here, the wish song there, and so on. But it all seems formulaic.
What makes Dr. Sex desperately in need of its own (show) doctor is the book, written by Bortniker and Sally Deering. Having chosen to center the musical on the real-life Dr. Kinsey and his wife Clara, about whom much has been written and even filmed, the creators inexplicably underdevelop these characters. Kinsey (played by Brian Noonan) barely changes his persona or looks over the show's 40-year time span, and it's never entirely clear what possesses this gifted academic to jeopardize both career and marriage by focusing his energies on such a controversial subject. If you believe his "Rose's Turn"-like final number, "Kinsey in the Eleventh Hour," his life's work may have been about nothing more than "the boom-chica-boom" (a.k.a. getting laid).
Even more troublesome is the depiction of Clara (Jennifer Simard), who morphs from sexually aggressive graduate student to only partly willing participant in her husband's research. She agrees -- without much struggle -- to take Kinsey's handsome lab assistant Wally (Christopher Corts) as her long-term lover but then has second thoughts, a flip-flop scenario that is repeated over and over. Such conventional morality doesn't seem to fit her personality. Also problematic is the creators' conception of Wally. While I didn't expect anything as sizzling as the kiss between Liam Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard in Bill Condon's film Kinsey, Bortniker and Deering have made the commercially safe but boring choice of depicting Wally as a raging heterosexual who falls in love with Clara and who, it seems, probably doesn't even enjoy a mild canoodle with Alfred. (Ladies all across America should have such understanding husbands.)
Dr. Sex could also benefit from stronger casting in its male leads. Noonan, a veteran of Phantom and Les Miz, has a lovely singing voice but is far too low-key to elevate the proceedings. (Where's Robert Preston when you need him?). Cort is fairly believable as the at-first-naïve Wally but he doesn't emanate much warmth. The game members of the ensemble -- Jared Bradshaw, Linda Cameron, David Edwards, Christy Faber, Colleen Hawks, and Benjie Randall -- do everything they're asked with the utmost professionalism, no matter how embarrassing.
If there's one spoonful of sugar that helps this medicine go down, it's the always wonderful Simard, whose megawatt talent brightens the stage whenever she appears. Having realized that there's no consistency to Clara, Simard simply pulls whatever trick is needed out of her bag to get her numbers over, from the Jeanette McDonald-like soprano she uses in "I'm in Love With My Zoology Professor" to the va-va-va-voom vamp of her amusing second act lament, "The Doctor's Wife." Had the show been all about "Mrs. Sex," Bortniker might have had a hit on his hands. As things stand, however, Dr. Sex is in critical condition.