Of all the properties that could be turned into musicals, I don't think anyone expected to see 1969's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice onstage. In this era of only the most commercial titles being developed as theater projects, it's just not really a work that rings a bell with most audiences anymore. A sterling adaptation could have changed my mind, but writers Jonathan Marc Sherman (book), Duncan Sheik (music and lyrics), and Amanda Green (lyrics) have not created that. In fact, it doesn't seem like they know what they want their show to be, and therein lies one of its many problems.
Like its big-screen predecessor, the stage version tells the story of two couples in the swinging '60s. Bob and Carol (Joél Pérez and Jennifer Damiano) attend a marriage retreat and are determined to live their lives openly. Bob has an affair — it's not really an affair, it's just sex — and Carol is so fine with it that she can't wait to tell their friends Ted and Alice (Michael Zegen and Ana Nogueira). The news not only unnerves their square pals, but it leads to a disastrous night where Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice decide to swap partners (that's not a spoiler, just look at the program cover).
Though regarded as satire upon its initial release, Paul Mazursky's dark comedy was actually ahead of its time as it depicted the limits of monogamy and desire during the sexual revolution. Even today, in an era where open and nonmonogamous relationships are becoming more commonplace, the material is still surprisingly progressive and nonjudgmental.
Sherman's book hews closely to Mazursky and Larry Tucker's screenplay. The only difference is that it eliminates all the ancillary characters and assigns whatever extra dialogue is necessary to an omniscient narrator, played by Grammy-winning singer Suzanne Vega. Yet all the charm of the screen world seems to have been lost in translation — there's no humor, it's way too self-conscious, and, perhaps most surprisingly, it takes great pains to not be sexy. As social commentary, it's strangely antiquated, and it shouldn't feel that way. Retaining the '60s setting and not doing anything to draw contemporary parallels gives this show a whiff of dust.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice isn't really a "musical," either, but more like a play with commentary songs here and there (Vega, whose role is officially titled "Band Leader," sings most of them, with the cast occasionally taking part). The music itself has the twinkly sound of the "Slow Rise" alarm feature on your iPhone; the lyrics are aggressively rhymed ("Who made the rules? / Taught in school / They're for fools / social tools / we're not ghouls" sings Bob at one point). It reminded me of Bill Murray's "Nick the Lounge Singer" routine from Saturday Night Live.
Jeff Croiter's neon lighting, Derek McLane's burnt-sienna carpet and beaded curtains, and Jeff Mahshie's chic, formfitting costumes all look '60s enough, but it feels a little bit like putting on your grandparents' bell-bottoms and playing dress-up in the rumpus room (two swivel chairs block the entrance and exit paths of the cast, who distractingly bump into them). Like the text, Scott Elliott's production places pastiche over reality.
Of the company, Nogueira fares the best — she's the liveliest character and therefore the most fun to watch. She's also the only one who seems to have any skin in the game. Perhaps a different take on the material could have led the other cast members to more believable performances, but for now, Damiano, Pérez, Vega, and Zegen deliver their lines with a flat, distant monotone and all the enthusiasm of a CPR instructional video's narrator. If they don't seem to be turned on by the show, why should we be?