[Ed. Note: This is the third in a series of TheaterMania review roundups of shows in the fourth annual New York Musical Theatre Festival, playing various venues in Manhattan.]
Shonn Wiley is an amazing dancer. It’s a joy to watch him strut his stuff, which he does expertly in Mud Donahue & Son, the new musical two-hander based on vaudeville performer Jack Donahue’s autobiography, Letters of a Hoofer to His Ma.The entertaining if slightly overlong show features music and lyrics by Bob Johnston and book and lyrics by Jeff Hochhauser, and is directed and choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett.
Wiley is joined onstage by Karen Murphy as Jack’s long-suffering mother, who is nicknamed “Mud.” The show is told primarily through their correspondence during Jack’s first season as a professional vaudeville dancer. He reports his successes and occasional disappointments from the road, and keeps promising to send money back home. Mud, for her part, struggles to keep her family afloat with no help from her drunkard husband, and also no sign of the money Jack promises.
The pattern of these scenes is established quickly, and the show could do with fewer of them to avoid repetition. However, a fantasy sequence and a flashback do help to give the production some variety. The characterizations of both Mud and Jack could also be further fleshed out, as too often they come across as stock types rather than flesh and blood people.
The mostly upbeat score gives the performers plenty to work with. Murphy is at her best with her songs, “My Son, I Know” and “So the Old Dog Has Come Home,” which allows her to emotionally connect to the material. The charismatic Wiley is at the top of his game during his song and dance numbers, of which he gets several including “The Shadow,” “French Kiss,” “The Tap Drunk,” and “Vaudeville Man.” Taylor-Corbett has choreographed some nifty tap routines for him, and the show really comes alive whenever he puts his feet into motion.
Stephen O’Rourke (book and lyrics) and Brandon Patton (music) give Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost a rock ‘n’ roll spin in Love Sucks, transporting the bard’s sparring lovers to New York and the early days of the punk rock era. With songs like “Let’s Do It Now” and “Love Ain’t So Bad,” Sucks never really reaches the linguistic heights found in Shakespeare, but then, it never really needs to. There’s enough youthful energy in the story and the music to seduce audiences.
O’Rourke distills the Bard’s original to its essentials. Four guys (a band called The Molotovs) feel that they need to stay away from serious relationships which they believe are ruining their music. So they decide that after they’ve slept with someone three times, they must move on to a new partner. A rival girl band — The Guttersnipes — has the same rule, but when the eight musicians meet, pairing off begins immediately —
except for the bands’ leads, Big Joe (a wooden Nicholas Webber) and Patti (a steely Rebecca Hart). They maintain a hard-line stance toward the rule, and eject bandmates Johnny (the charismatic Jason Wooten) and Kate (appealingly played by Heather Robb) when this couple’s ongoing relationship is discovered. What are the lovers to do? Well, it’s obvious that Big Joe and Patti are meant for one another, so their bandmates scheme to bring them together, and thus preserve their own relationships.
It’s a lighter-than-air story that sometimes jars against Patton’s punk, hard rock score (an early number for Big Joe and Patti establishes the two as unpleasant rebels rather than potential soulmates), but overall, the writers strike a balance that succeeds marvelously. Under Andy Goldberg’s assured direction, the musical moves with swift energy befitting a storytelling rock concert, and one senses that, with some revisions, Sucks could be completely loveable.
Set during the 1950s, Noel Katz’s lackluster new musical, Such Good Friends, revolves around TV star Dottie Francis (Liz Larsen), and her creative partners, writer Danny Factor (Jeff Talbott), director Gabe Fisher (Brad Oscar), and choreographer Donald McMahon (Dirk Lumbard). When Dottie, Danny, and Gabe are called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, their individual responses strain bonds they once thought to be unbreakable.
The first act is primarily set-up, giving glimpses backstage of The Dottie Francis Show, as well as an extended flashback to show how the four friends first met. Unfortunately, much of this exposition comes across as laborious and it’s obvious that both script and cast are trying way too hard to make things seem funny. The second act shift to more dramatic fare works better, although it also stays fairly predictable.
The show does feature one terrific production number, “You’re a Red,” which has Dottie and her writing team venting their frustration about McCarthyism. A couple other songs worth mentioning include Danny and Gabe’s bitter second act duet “My Name Is Mud” and “Little Sister,” sung by Dottie and mentor Vivian March (Lynne Wintersteller) who have fabulous chemistry the first time around, and a much chillier one during their reprise after certain information has come to light.
Larsen is a great singer, but is missing the kind of screwball comedy timing necessary to make the character of Dottie truly believable. Oscar needs to pump up his energy a notch as Gabe, who is too low-key even before he testifies in front of HUAC. Talbott fares better, capturing Danny’s jovial demeanor during the good times, as well as his later anxiety once everything falls apart. Lumbard gets to show off some nifty dance steps, but otherwise remains somewhat of a cipher as Donald. Director Marc Bruni needs to take some responsibility for the uneven results achieved here, although it’s possible that with more rehearsal and some judicious cuts, some of the more blatant problems can be fixed.
The opening of Little Egypt, featuring a book by Lynn Siefert and music/lyrics by Gregg Lee Henry, promises a couple of hours of Southern-fried comedy, but there is a gaping disconnect between book and score.
As the musical begins, tough-as-nails Faye (Jenny O’Hare) trades barbs and insults with her daughters, Bernadette (Lisa Akey) and Celeste (Sara Rue). Celeste has just returned to the small Southern Illinois town in which she grew up, but Faye wants nothing to do with this bookish child. The comedy of the opening is acerbic fun, but as soon as the trio launches into the show’s first song, our sense of amusement is replaced by a gnawing concern about the direction of the show. The twang-y “There You Are and There You Go” bears little relationship to the scene or moment these three women share.
As Egypt continues, musical numbers are seemingly shoehorned in at random, even when songs seem inevitable. The musical charts the women’s uneasy relationships with three guys, and each of these has the potential for music. And yet, the songs almost never come. Instead, we hear, for instance, Faye’s beau, the town’s married mayor (Lee Wilkof), singing about hitting 50.
Director Lisa James’ staging never manages to pull us along with the show’s drama, which includes Bernadette’s unwanted pregnancy by Watson (composer Henry) and the nightmares belonging to haunted Vietnam vet Victor (Raphael Sbarge) who engages in an on-again, off-again relationship with Celeste. James also never exploits the piece’s lunatic Southern milieu, and ultimately, in spite of energetic performances from the six-person ensemble, Egypt wearies.