Brian Sutherland and Diane Sutherland
in A Second Chance
(© Christopher Mueller)
Brian Sutherland and Diane Sutherland
in A Second Chance
(© Christopher Mueller)
A Second Chance, now at Virginia's Signature Theatre, is not only the name of the debut musical from composer/lyricist Ted Shen, it is also a description of the project's own journey. Shen originated the show at Joe's Pub in New York last year as a narrative concert piece, but it has been rebirthed here as a full 95-minute theatrical presentation by director Jonathan Butterell. The result is a pleasant diversion from the holiday hustle and bustle.

Shen has significantly revised the score to stress action over contemplation and to focus the dramatic arc of the two characters, Dan and Jenna (played by real-life couple Brian and Diane Sutherland).The show is almost entirely sung-through, with minimal between-numbers dialogue. (Most of the songs -- some of which have unusually awkward lyrics -- are essentially conversations or storytelling set to music.)

Even if Shen doesn't have anything new to say about mid-life love, the score is a nice mélange of contemporary musical theater and jazz. There's a hint of waltz as act one ends with the brief "Waltz," and I think I may have heard a whisper of bossa nova in the act two opener, "I Can't Wait."

What makes the piece truly work, however, are the stunningly emotive performances from its two stars, who bring to life these two wounded mid-aged New Yorkers who meet and try to overcome their pasts to build a relationship. So many subtle, often conflicting emotions play across their faces that it's hard to imagine the show generating its emotional charge without them.

In one scene, Dan, a widower still deeply mourning the loss of life with his late wife, and Jenna, a relationship-wary divorcee, go to an art gallery on an early date. They look directly at the audience as they contemplate a painting, and the reactions which play out on each face not only tell us about each character in expansive detail, but lay out the differences which may pose problems.

While their duet performances are particularly lyrical, the couple's individual work is equally stunning. Diane Sutherland is exquisitely expressive as her Jenna gazes at a photo of Dan's late wife. Accompanied only by a piano, her voice mixes crystalline notes with brimming eyes and a running, sniffly nose. She finds new diamonds in an old mine.

Unlike many musicals, A Second Chance is not about the blush of young love. There are no surprises. But spending some time with two seemingly authentic and likable people -- gray hair, wrinkles and all -- is perfectly okay as well.