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Haviland Stillwell and Gerritt VanderMeer
in You Never Know
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Who wouldn't want You Never Know to be wonderful? After all, this is a show with music by Charles Strouse, who gave us Annie 28 years ago during a period of economic stagflation and Bye Bye Birdie in pre-swinging 1960, just in time to give bobby-soxers a fond, satiric sendoff. However, topicality doesn't much figure in the new work, which is receiving its world premiere at Providence's Trinity Rep because director Amanda Dehnert wowed Strouse with a stark rendition of Annie -- not unless the topical theme happens to be the endangered state of musicals. There's no escaping the sense that what we are being handed here are jottings retrieved from a forgotten desk drawer.

In fact, the plot pretty much tells us so: Young Ben Shapiro (played by Trinity conservatory student Ben Steinfeld) is toying with the notion of becoming a composer even as his father lobbies for law school, so he rents a rehearsal hall in order to present an autobiographical musical that his late grandfather Ben Shipley had left unfinished. Evidently, Shapiro's pretty green. He has only managed to attract an audience of one -- Luis (Julio Monge), who was Shipley's janitor sidekick during a piano lounge gig at a grand Miami hotel back in 1948, when and where the musical-within-a-musical is set. As Monge (faking an old man's shuffle) executes a soft-shoe routine, employing a broom as a "blonde" partner, the specter of show-biz sentimentality hangs heavily over the scene.

That specter is dispelled somewhat when a young woman named Abby (Haviland Stillwell) bursts in with her uber-boyfriend Paul (a smug Yalie played to entitled perfection by Gerritt VanderMeer) and third-wheel Irene (Rachel Warren). Having memorized the obscure composer's oeuvre as a musical theater student at NYU, Abby is intent on playing "Ashley," Shipley's movie-star love interest. A font of "hey, kids" perkiness, Abby soon succeeds in roping in her friends and enough bystanders to constitute a quorum for a sing-through.

As the actors, on book, segue awkwardly into the flashback, we learn that Ashley's marriage to politico/Lothario Peter (embodied by Paul) is on the skids. Warren completes the rectangle as another "Irene," the complaisant desk clerk whose willingness to play along with Peter gives rise to the musical's most arresting moment, a passionately dissonant tryst atop a piano. This is trumped only by the Act I finale, a clever and scathing dissection of a charity ball ("That's why we dance: to ease their pain"). The number gets a glamorous presentation, what with William Lane's spot-on '40s fashions and David Jenkins' surprising insta-set (a shimmery metallic curtain pops up from the drab rehearsal-hall floor). Unfortunately, there are no equally exciting moments in Act II.

The book has its problems, structurally and textually. Precious rapport is sacrificed in Act I, when the actors must pretend to focus on their scripts. Cognitive dissonance creeps in as Abby/Ashley keeps raving about Ben/Ben's musicianship: we haven't heard anything all that impressive. Ben the Elder's own self-assessment is often more apt: "It's cheap, it's trite, it's uninspired." The Calypsoid "De Sun, De Sea, De Sand," for instance, is a clone of "Under the Sea " from The Little Mermaid, and the anthem "Music" is pedestrian in the extreme. ("Sing two or three or four notes / Great tunes don't need more notes." Oh, but they do!)

Ben Steinfeld does yeoman work as both Bens but doesn't yet have the acting chops, much less the voice, to make any of this mishegaas seem to matter. Stillwell is all right as Abby -- the annoying kitteny-cuteness goes with the role -- but way out of her depth as a supposed movie siren. Her torch songs fizzle. The general dearth of ardor in the show, with the exception of the electrifying extramarital romp "The Start of an Affair," probably accounts for the decision to have the love scenes feature pas de deux by the skilled duo of Kelly Crandall and Jason Lacayo, choreographed by Christopher d'Amboise.

VanderMeer carries what little of the musical is worth carrying, abetted by company member Warren. (Departing from tradition, Trinity imported half the cast.) Darryl Semira charms as the youthful Luis, though why this role alone is split between actors perplexes. And in the minor role of Dad, Trinity regular Fred Sullivan, Jr. gets the most laughs per line -- a hard-won commodity here.

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