A man and a woman meet. Sparks fly instantly and they retire to a hotel room and have terrific sex. Is there any way they can hold onto what they share? In the charming, but somewhat hollow, musical Like Love, these characters, known only as He (Jon Patrick Walker) and She (Emily Swallow), hope to replicate their first encounter by learning as little about one another as possible. They opt to meet weekly in the same hotel room, just for sex. No questions allowed. No commitments. Little do they know that Love (Danielle Ferland) is watching their every move.
Book writer/lyricist Barry Jay Kaplan has created an intriguing scenario for a musical suited to our age of Craigslist hookups, and composer Lewis Flinn provides a rich, diverse score that blends jazz, Latin, soft pop, and traditional Broadway sounds beautifully. Unfortunately, the musical falls into a trap set by the show's premise. If the characters aren't revealing themselves to one another, how are we supposed to know who they are? Kaplan misses a key opportunity to humanize He and She when he fails to reveal something about who they are when they step outside the trysts to talk with friends (played by Ferland). Here, details could be provided that would elevate the characters beyond generic contemporary urban types.
Swallow and Walker do their utmost to breathe life into their roles, singing powerfully and with persuasive emotion, but as He and She's inevitable pas de deux toward a relationship unfolds, we only minimally empathize with their plight. Scenic designer Sean Tribble and costume designer Christina Bullard inject color into Lisa Rothe's fleet production with red furniture pieces and personal accessories, but these passionate feeling highlights are not enough to move us beyond deep like for Like Love.
On the plus side, the playwright has strengthened the relationship between Francis Geminiani (Dan Micciche) and his father Fran (Joel Blum), giving them a touching reconciliation that is absent from the play version. Gilbert has also successfully taken a scene between Francis and Randy (Ryan Reid), the male friend he has a crush on, and turned it into the upbeat and catchy tune, "Let's Find Out."
Unfortunately, many of the other musical numbers fall flat, coming across as generically derivative. There are exceptions, such as "Good People," a duet between Fran's current paramour Lucille (Bethe Austin), and Francis' ex-girlfriend Judith (Kirsten Bracken). Oddly enough, the best song in the score, "Trolley" is given to the most minor character in the script, Francis' mentally challenged neighbor Herschel (Jonathan Kay).
The major drawback in the adaptation is that the character of Francis is now less complex. In the play, not only was Francis dealing with his homosexual feelings, he also had a number of body issues he was working through as a result of being overweight. Mark Robinson's direction is another weakness, as the scene changes are clunky, the action is often played too broadly, and the staging is rather uninspired. Despite this, several of the actors still manage to give strong performances. Blum has a number of good moments, such as bringing out the humor in songs like "Concrete," and Linda Hart is also a treat as the Geminiani's neighbor Bunny.
Behind-the-scenes bickering and artistic pretension of community theater groups have long been the staple of comedy and farce. The new musical Austentatious draws upon this tradition, taking audiences into the rehearsal hall of an amateur group in Central Riverdale where a new adaptation of Austen's Pride and Prejudice is in pre-production. Unfortunately, this musical -- with a by-the-numbers book by committee (Matt Board, Jane Caplow, Kate Galvin, Luisa Hinchliff and Joe Slabe), and a pretentious score from Board and Slabe that aims for Sondheimesque intricacy -- only poorly echoes forebears like Waiting for Guffman or Inspecting Carol.
The writers certainly know the elements to include, starting with the warmhearted, steely stage manager Sam (Stephanie D'Abruzzo), who must contend not only with Dominic (Stephen Bel Davies), a pompous, know-nothing director, but also with Emily (Stacey Sargeant), the pretentious playwright/adaptor who's playing Austen's heroine Elizabeth Bennett. Emily, with whom Dominic is unsurprisingly sleeping, sees dance as a key element in her work: she's not sure whether the show's climax should be clog dance or a tap-off. (Choreographer Rhonda Miller fails to capitalize on either scenario.)
The types, and trysting, among the locals performing in the show-within-a-show are equally familiar. Lauren (Amy Goldberger) is a prima donna with limited talent and a kind and cowed boyfriend (George Merrick); and he ultimately falls for Sam. Meanwhile, suburban matron Jessica (Lisa Asher) develops a thing for Blake (Paul Wyatt), the druggie slacker who's inexplicably using the show to get out of therapy.
We struggle along with these characters as revisions fly and tempers flare up to opening night, where chaos reigns. Under the guidance of director Mary Catherine Burke, the company strives to make these bumbling amateurs' work hilarious, but to little or no avail; they're simply battling with our memories of more successful predecessors.
Adam's ADD manifests as a loss of touch with reality and delusional hallucinations that may be more appropriately diagnosed as psychosis. Still, once you accept that the show is going to include wild flights of fancy and imaginary characters, it's easy enough to go with the flow.
The strained relationship between Adam and his little sister Gwen (Yuko Takara) is the most compelling part of the musical. Gwen is starting at Adam's school that day after leaving her "brainy" private school for reasons that the show does not make clear. Her loneliness is well brought out in Takara's flawless performance, and expressed in the beautifully haunting song "Door/Window," which she sings.
Another outstanding performance is given by Randy Blair, as Adam's best friend Casserole. He is funny and dynamic, and sells his big number "Tater Tot Casserole" which contains the hilarious lyric, "It takes more than salt and pepper/to change the flavor of a leper." Tam is often quite moving as Adam struggles with the choices he makes, but he strains his voice in his singing in a way that seems a bit unhealthy.
The piece follows a meandering path that could be tightened up and streamlined. Certain plot threads -- such as the results of the school election and the marital troubles of Adam and Gwen's parents -- are introduced and then dropped. But the musical does come to a strong conclusion both musically and thematically.
For more on NYMF, see also our video preview.