Kerry Butler and David Burtka in The Opposite of Sex
(Photo © Bill Faulkner)
Kerry Butler and David Burtka in The Opposite of Sex
(Photo © Bill Faulkner)
The Magic Theatre's new musical version of The Opposite of Sex is hardly the opposite of good -- but if you're a scrappy little musical aiming for the big time, "not bad" isn't nearly good enough. Broadway producers Fran and Barry Weissler were in the audience on opening night, so New York ambitions for this show are hardly the stuff of fantasy. Yet, at this early stage, Sex feels like an amiable Off-Broadway musical.

There's a lot that works in the production, and most of it comes directly from writer-director Don Roos's screenplay for his 1998 movie of the same title. That's smart: Roos's story of a pregnant 16-year-old truant and her penchant for causing trouble wherever she goes is filled with memorable characters of varying sexualities and dialogue that crackles with cynical humor. Director Robert Jess Roth (Disney's Beauty and the Beast), collaborating with composer Douglas J. Cohen (No Way to Treat a Lady) on the book of the musical, follows the movie almost to a fault; as good as the film is, its final third could stand some streamlining.

Cohen's music and lyrics work in a style reminiscent of William Finn's Falsettos. Though there are a few stand-alone songs, Cohen tends to dilute his pleasant but not particularly memorable melodies by spreading them across a scene. Musical director Brad Haak does what he can with a four-piece band. The results are popishly bland, with only the occasional glimmer of a show tune. Not as effective or affecting as Finn's musicals, The Opposite of Sex keeps us at an emotional distance from the characters in much the same way that the movie does.

Kerry Butler, late of Hairspray and Little Shop of Horrors, is Dedee Truitt, a role played to delinquent perfection on screen by Christina Ricci. As Ricci did in the movie, Butler provides narration that breaks through the fourth wall and engages the audience directly. When, for instance, the action shifts from Indiana to Los Angeles, the cast begins a goofy dance number involving the "Hollywood" sign -- but Dedee quickly steps in and stops it. "No cheesy dancing," she says, "just stand there and sing." When Dedee steals her half-brother Bill's boyfriend and runs away, Bill (played with wan charm by John Bolton) sings a sad/angry song called "Blessing in Disguise" that inspires a certain sympathy. Dedee can't have that. "Yeah, I know; love him, hate me, right?" she says to the audience. "Hey, just because his music is turbulent doesn't make him better than me." Butler's sharp, well-sung Dedee dominates the in-your-face opening number "I've Got News for You" and the clever Act II opener "Dead Ex-Lover," but she's too often stuck in the eight-person ensemble. Deedee needs a great number all her own. It makes sense that a show about deconstructing and then reconstructing the concept of "family" keeps its focus on the ensemble, but the principal characters need sharpening.

As Bill, Bolton doesn't make much of an impression until the second act, when he stops being a doormat. Karen Ziemba plays Lucia, the sister of Bill's dead ex-lover; as usual, she's charming and sings well, though her character also suffers from the lack of a defining moment in Act I. Her character doesn't come fully to life until Act II, when she hooks up with a sheriff named Carl (played with good humor by Jeff McCarthy of Urinetown). Poor McCarthy is saddled with the show's one stinker of a song, "Lucia (Heaven and Hell)," but he makes up for it in his sweet duet with Ziemba, "Look for Me First." David Burtka as the sexually confused Matt scores one of the few moments when the musical actually improves on the movie; it's a song called "Normal Life," in which Matt's ambivalence about being gay is overwhelmed by the chance to experiment with Dedee and a life of heterosexuality.

There's not much of a set to speak of, but Derek McLane was "consulted" about it. The result is an open stage onto which actors drag various props and pieces of furniture. Norm Schwab's back wall lighting projections effectively shuttle the action from a Louisiana cemetery to palm-lined Los Angeles and then to a Canadian pine forest.

"Efficient" is a good word for The Opposite of Sex, an entertaining musical that never quite trumps the film on which it's based. It is skillfully executed, mostly well performed, and full of good laughs if not great songs. That said, given the strength of the movie, the show seems unnecessary.