Emily Swallow and Ivan Hernandez
in Romantic Poetry
(© Joan Marcus)
Emily Swallow and Ivan Hernandez
in Romantic Poetry
(© Joan Marcus)
Featuring book, lyrics, and direction by Pulitzer Prize winner John Patrick Shanley and music by Dreamgirls composer Henry Krieger, Romantic Poetry sounds like it should be a winner. And yet, this new musical at Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I is a definite disappointment.

The story centers around Fred (Ivan Hernandez) and Connie (Emily Swallow), who discover unpleasant information about each other while on their honeymoon. The script does a fine job of showing us that they're quite mismatched, but it never really details what draws them together, making their reconciliations at various points in the show seem forced. It doesn't help matters that there's also very little chemistry between the two leads. Hernandez sings sweetly, but is a bit stiff. Swallow, on the other hand, has an appropriately earthy quality, but ends up reaching for several of her notes.

A secondary couple, Mary (Patina Renea Miller) and Frankie (Jerry Dixon), fall in love at first sight, discover they're headed in different directions almost as quickly, and then break up and make up for the remainder of the show. At least here, you see the passion between the two, primarily due to Miller's sultry presence, which generates so much heat in a crucial balcony scene that the relationship becomes believable. She also has a powerhouse voice, demonstrated ably in the rousing "Give Me Love, or Let Me Wait," one of the show's better tunes. Dixon, who admittedly has less to work with, doesn't make as strong of an impression.

Curiously, we get the most character development out of Connie's two ex-husbands, Carl (Mark Linn-Baker) and Red (Jeb Brown). Perhaps it's because Shanley gives them the longest stretch of dialogue in their introductory scene, as well as juicy exchanges such as Carl and Red's amusing debate about whether or not women can be likened to tacos. Their duet, "Go Through the Motions," is also quite catchy, and the two actors perform it with aplomb.

Many of the remaining songs in Krieger's score, however, are surprisingly bland. The gospel-infused finale, "Walking Up the Stairs" is memorable, even if the song's lyrics don't seem to relate to much in the rest of the show. But then, Shanley proves a mediocre lyricist in most of the numbers. Either he uses fairly simple, unchallenging rhymes, or tries to rhyme things that he'd be better off not attempting (such as "heinous" and "penis").

The large number of songs in the show also results in diminishing returns. Many of the sung sections would be more effective as spoken dialogue, as there's no real call for them to be musicalized. It seems as if Shanley incorporates so much singing to emphasize the whimsical aspects of the script, but too often Romantic Poetry fails to achieve the proper tone.