Sessions, now at the Algonquin Theatre, has returned to the New York stage for a second full-length run. Yet, despite rewrites and a lengthy new preview period, this original musical by Albert M. Tapper remains only fitfully entertaining, primarily because of its tremendously talented cast.
The show centers on Dr. Pete Peterson (a stalwart John Hickok), a therapist who’s working through a problem of his own even as he attempts to put on a brave face for his patients. The doctor is contemplating one of the women he’s treating: Leila (a sexy, but curiously muted, Maya Days), a woman with issues of trust. Among the other people seeing Pete are Mr. & Mrs. Murphy (the always reliable Ken Jennings and Liz Larsen), a squabbling middle-aged couple who’ve come to New York for their retirement years; George (Scott Richard Foster, a powerhouse vocalist who otherwise brings to mind Jerry van Dyke); and abused housewife Mary (Natalie Buster). Eventually, the group welcomes a new member — and Tapper’s most interesting invention — real estate mogul Baxter (deftly played by Al Bundonis), who’s trying to resolve issues with his terminally ill father.
Group therapy has long been a way in which writers can create comedy by bringing together a diverse set of quirky characters, but the laughs — and drama — are sporadic at best. Tapper has clearly attempted to make sure that every form of neurosis and personal crisis is represented, and has been equally assiduous in ensuring that the characters and their problems are revealed in song (often pop-like power ballads with heavy-handed rhymes).
Yet, what’s particularly problematic here is that even if audiences are willing to accept that Dr. Peterson is willing to risk his credibility and livelihood on an affair with Leila, they are probably going to have a difficult time with the psychology of large portions of the musical’s book and score. When Mary describes wanting to escape her husband by jumping in the river, the doctor asks her why. Her response is that she’d end up in New Jersey. When the doctor learns about a tragedy that has befallen one character, he sings a song in which he ponders why it’s his life that’s fallen apart.
Matters aren’t helped by director Thomas Coté’s staging, which veers between the confusing and the perfunctory. Often as two-character scenes unfold, group members stand around the perimeter of the stage (a handsome interior backed by a city skyline from scenic designer John McDermott) for no apparent reason. Still, the staging is only one reason Sessions falls short of its potential.