Stars in Your Eyes takes place in a small town called Milford, somewhere in America in 1962, at the dawn of the Space Age, before the twin catastrophes of Vietnam and Watergate soured our national mood so decisively. Here live Reginald Barclay (Mr. Lutken), an idealistic astronomy teacher at the local high school, and Charles Swanson (John Braden), his boss, the gruff but kindly principal, a widower. Here, too, live Helen Stevens (Heather MacRae), the opinionated and square-dealing proprietress of the town's dance studio, and Annie Patterson (Ms. Walsh), her best friend, a teacher in the studio and single mother raising the teenage daughter of her best friend, who died a year ago. They're an improbable quartet, to be sure; but they're real and charming and we immediately begin rooting for these two as-yet unmatched couples to find each other.
They do, but not without complications; otherwise there's no show. The main one is spoiled rich girl Leigh Hunt-Smith (Crista Moore), who is engaged to Reginald. Leigh orders him to take some dance lessons so that he won't embarrass her at the wedding, which sets things nicely in motion. Reginald, meanwhile, is fighting to save the town's astronomical observatory from closing down, a cause that eventually wins the support of Annie, Helen, and Charles.
The specifics of the plot are not what's important here, however. What I like best about Stars in Your Eyes is the way Mr. Mayrelles uses his songs to effortlessly glide his characters through their courtships. These people talk about events that propel the action, but they sing about what they feel and what they want. By the end of the evening's second musical number, "Somebody (More or Less) Like Me," we not only know everything we need to about Helen and Annie, we love them for it. And likewise in other songs, such as Charles's "Another Day," Annie and Reginald's duet "Stars in Your Eyes," and Reginald's too-brief "Take Me to Heart," we really get under the skins of these people, and into their hearts. And they come into ours.
Mr. Mayrelles has also written two bona fide show-stoppers in this score. "Men!," which comes right at the top of the second act, is a coy comic duet for Helen and Annie that demands a couple of additional verses for the deserved (but so far unaccorded) encore. And "Why Do We Dance?" is a lilting waltz performed by Helen and Reginald that leads into a charming dance that is the emotional highlight of the evening. (Mr. Mayrelles also answers the question posed in this song's title with unexpected success; he's no slouch in the lyric-writing department.)
Mr. Mayrelles's material is undoubtedly enhanced by the terrific cast on hand for Stars in Your Eyes. I've already told you that in Mr. Lutken and Ms. Walsh he has an ideal leading man and lady; these two performers make Reginald and Annie vulnerable and smart and very real; they sing beautifully, too. John Braden plays Charles with simplicity and empathy; Crista Moore, in the largely comic role of Leigh, finds all the laughs without overselling. Heather MacRae is as miraculously invaluable here as she was as the "lesbian next door" in Falsettos, providing a warm, wise center to the proceedings (and singing effortlessly and enchantingly).
Gabriel Barre's direction tends toward the pedestrian; he is hampered, perhaps, by the small size of the Cherry Lane's stage. James Youmans's spare unit set is appropriate, though occasionally cluttered. But Jennifer Paulson Lee's choreography is lovely, and Pamela Scofield's simple but elegant costumes are exactly right.
I alluded, at the beginning of this review, to some trouble spots: Stars in Your Eyes is not perfect, though I like it so well, I wish that it were. The principal problem is in the character of the Man in the Moon, popping up throughout the evening to narrate, move things along, and, deus-ex-machina-like, ensure the proper outcome. I don't know why Mr. Mayrelles thinks he needs this device: Reginald and Annie and Charles and Helen seem to have no trouble finding their way to one another all by themselves. If anything, what's called for is someone subtly omniscient (like El Gallo in The Fantasticks). But what we get, particularly in James Stovall's vulgarly overblown performance, is a cross between Pippin's Leading Player and Cabaret's Emcee. It's a serious misstep, one that I hope will be remedied if and when Mr. Mayrelles revises this promising work. (I'd love to see that happen; I'd love to see this show in a slightly snazzier production in a slightly larger venue, where its potential could be fully realized.)
Even so, Stars in Your Eyes is probably the finest new musical to arrive in New York this year; Mr. Mayrelles is certainly the most exciting new composer-lyricist to emerge in quite some time. So, in spite of its flaws, I say hooray for Stars in Your Eyes, and urge you to visit the Cherry Lane Theatre and give it a look and listen. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.