Jeff Gruner, Heather Ayers, and John Bolton in Five Course Love
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Jeff Gruner, Heather Ayers, and John Bolton in Five Course Love
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Offering a tasting menu of musical styles ranging from country-western to doo-wop, not to mention Italian opera, German cabaret, and Mexican mariachi, Five Course Love doesn't aspire to Escoffier finesse. It's as fluffy as mousse and often just as delicious, thanks in large part to the comedic legerdemain of John Bolton, who plays (in sequence) a lummox of a loser, a connected Casanova, a kinky Berliner boy-toy, a self-enamored Zorro type, a 1950s greaser, and -- once again -- the nerd he started out as, but this time, goggle-eyed with instant infatuation.

As his romantic foil, Heather Ayers gets to play a two-stepping Texan temptress, a Chanel-suited "Carmela" clone, a Dietrich-like dominatrix, a Kahlo-browed señorita (by far her funniest guise), and a waitress hooked on romance novels. Aiding and abetting throughout is Jeff Gurner as an all-purpose waiter, shape-shifting as the scenes change.

It's a clever little roundelay and, for the most part, writer-composer Gregg Coffin and director Emma Griffin move the action right along. We first meet Matt (Bolton, sporting grievously bad hair and a pocket protector) as he's driving toward a sushi date, hoping against hope that it might deliver him from his lonely, sad status as "A Very Single Man." Not knowing what's in store any more than Matt does, we can be forgiven for cringing as the restaurant suddenly morphs into "Dean's Old-Fashioned All-American Down-Home Bar-B-Que Texas Eats." This sequence seems as drawn-out as the eatery's name, mainly because yee-hah yokels are such easy targets these days that the joke feels tired as soon as it's introduced.

Wait for course two -- the pasta, as it were. In "Trattoria Pericolo," Bolton is brilliant as a "made" guy who's seeing his boss's wife on the sly, with the reluctant collusion of a petrified waiter. The sketch is operatic in scope and in tone, full of wonderfully silly, over-the-top histrionics. Ayers' voice isn't quite up to the challenge; when singing in her upper vocal register, she sounds shrill, and the lyrics are difficult to decipher. But Bolton, a former Spamalot standby, serves up the cultivated spasticity of John Cleese crossed with the louche assurance of Tim Curry. Plus, he's got a voice capable of wresting the best from any genre in any range, from basso profundo to falsetto.

The next three courses don't provide a steady diet of laughs, but there's still enough here to fill you up. "Der Schlupfwinkel Speiseplatz" suffers from an overlong lead-in by the maitre d', Heimlich, and overplays the pathos. Ayers' Marlene Dietrich impression also drags, although she looks smashing in black vinyl. "Ernesto's Cantina" shows the actors to better advantage, with unibrowed Rosalinda dithering between hero bandito Guillermo and preening, resentful Ernesto until an earth-shattering kiss seals the deal. Bolton's reappearance as a young, Presley-like heartthrob in the fifth course is delightful, but his ultimate transformation -- back to adult dweeb -- is marred by the fact that there's a large age gap between this character and Ayers' lovelorn teen waitress. (I don't think jail bait was meant to be on the menu.)

G.W. Mercier's costuming is spot-on throughout. He also devised the ingenious, minimal set, framed by a proscenium arch of mirrored silverware and topped by a sort of plexiglass toque encircling a quartet of musicians got up in chefs' togs.

Five Course Love would make a great first-date musical. You might not emerge with your own special song; the numbers, though packed with witty lyrics, are about as memorable as meringue. But you might come away instead with a surprisingly useful catchphrase, "trouble in the kitchen." And after all, such fond memories -- and shared mayhem -- have sparked many a romance.