Whether playing the romantic lead (Thoroughly Modern Millie), the conflicted hero (Hair), the goofy sidekick (Hello, Dolly!), or the cad (Into the Woods), Gavin Creel is an enormously charismatic actor. He can make you swoon with a wink and laugh and an upturned grin — and he’s so charming you just want to be in his orbit.
In his new theatrical concert, Walk on Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice, Creel adds a writer’s hat to his résumé. He has made a trio of original albums, so this is not his first go at penning songs, but this intimate MCC Theater production is indeed his coming-out party as a musical-theater scribe. And what a debut it is.
Commissioned by the MetLiveArts program, which invites artists to use the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its collection as inspiration for a new piece, the musical looks at Gavin, a performer going through a midlife crisis, as he begrudgingly steps inside the Met for the first time in his life (embarrassingly, but it is on the Upper East Side, after all) and slowly becomes transformed by the power of the various paintings and sculptures. A bad breakup and the loss of his chosen profession during the early days of Covid send him into a kind of limbo, but once the world reopens, he’s able to rejoin the human race by diving headfirst into the healing power of art.
First presented at the Met as a concert, you can still see the shreds of the show’s original form living alongside the work that Creel (who penned book and score) and director Linda Goodrich have done to give it the connective tissue of a plot. The breakup storyline could use a little more depth to really earn the emotions that Creel wants us to feel, though he and scene partner Ryan Vasquez (soon to appear in The Notebook) do get us there through their generous — OK, extremely sexy — chemistry. (Among other roles, Vasquez also plays Jackson Pollack, who delves into Creel’s fragmented mind, and suicidal Russian author Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin.)
The pandemic aspects could also use some more clarification, particularly how Lucas Cranach the Elder’s 1537 painting Judith With the Head of Holofernes leads to Creel’s climactic revelations. A number performed by Creel’s old Hair co-star Sasha Allen as Judith rightfully brings down the house — her vocals are unreal — but I don’t think she quite knows how to interpret the moment for maximum impact, and I don’t think Creel or Goodrich do either. Simply put, it’s the wrong song at the wrong time, a rookie mistake amid a sea of genuine beauty. It’s nothing that’s unfixable for future iterations of this show.
From the sounds of his songs (orchestrated by band members Madeline Benson, Chris Peters, Corey Rawls, and Scott Wasserman), you can tell precisely which generation of musical-theater Creel grew up in. With shades of Jonathan Larson’s pioneering rock-and-roll attitude, the intellect of Jason Robert Brown, and the complexity of Jeanine Tesori, Creel is obviously a theater geek from the end of the last millennium, but still with a singular style all his own. Wry, witty, warm, and extremely thoughtful, I can’t wait to hear this collection of songs again. When a Walk on Through cast album gets recorded and released, it’s going to rock some kids’ worlds the way Songs for a New World and Things to Ruin did mine.
They’re given a worthy home in Goodrich’s richly energetic staging, which uses its design elements (set by I. Javier Ameijeiras, costumes by Jeff Mahshie, lighting by Jiyoun Chang, projections by David Bengali, and sound by Alex Neumann) to evoke the Met building without overtly re-creating it. And yet, through the vividness of Creel’s lyrics, you feel like you’re actually wandering around the Great Hall. With the right edits here and there, Walk on Through could become the smartest musical on the creation of art since Sunday in the Park With George. I have no doubt Creel can get it there.