Anyone who has ever even attempted to give up smoking will tell you that the first few days without a puff are among the most excruciating times one could ever experience. Book writer and lyricist Bill Russell and composer Peter Melnick are apparently attempting to replicate this sensation with their musical, The Last Smoker in America, now at the Westside Theatre.
The show has a cute — and even timely — enough premise. In a world in which smoking has been outlawed, Pam (the iron-lunged Farah Alvin at her neurotic best), a suburban housewife, is finding it difficult to quit. Given that her would-be singer/songwriter husband Ernie (John Bolton) is perpetually unemployed and her teen son Jimmy (Jake Boyd) has severe behavior issues, it’s a little easy to understand why Pam wants to take refuge in the habit.
But neither the new electronic surveillance gizmo that her husband has installed in their kitchen — which announces the government’s increasingly severe penalties for lighting up — nor the ongoing visits from her zealously anti-nicotine and caffeine-swilling neighbor Phyllis (imbued with cloying chipperness by Natalie Venetia Belcon) have any effect on Pam’s cravings.
It’s the sort of idea with all the heightened details that could make for an amusing improv sketch, but Russell has stretched the premise to the breaking point, never building any real dramatic tension into the tale that supports 90 minutes of stage action. lnstead, implausible and simply silly secrets are revealed, flashbacks take place (wasn’t it great when you could smoke in bars?), and ultimately, Pam makes a decision about her habit, leading to further twists before the musical’s unconvincingly explosive denouement and welcome conclusion.
It’s surprising that the creators’ work is so strained, particularly as Russell has an ear for a quick one-liner and Melnick’s gifts as a composer are considerable. When Russell’s book settles into a sort of genial sitcom mode, it actually can be charming, and Melnick has turned out a couple of lovely ballads, particularly “You’re the Only Friend I’ve Got,” in which all of the characters pay tribute to their respective addictions.
The show’s assets also extend to the talented cast who, under the sturdy direction of Andy Sandberg, work valiantly to put over each joke and song, and to make each unmotivated shift in their respective characters’ signature behavior credible. The men’s work is particularly notable. Bolton delivers not one, but three, purposefully bad rock songs (that Ernie theoretically penned) with utter abandon and conviction, and Boyd’s delivery of a rap number proves to be the comic highpoint of the show.
The production also has some superlative production values, including Charlie Corcoran’s vaguely futuristic — and often surprising — scenic design, and Jeff Croiter and Grant Yeager’s absolutely knockout lighting design that readily adapts to each cartoonish twist in this sadly underwhelming tuner.