Burt Bachrach's promising new musical, based on The Gift of the Magi, premieres at the Old Globe.
The music sounds great, having the very comfortable feeling of a Bacharach melody, with plenty of brass. Great orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick and musical direction by conductor Lon Hoyt aid the tunes. So does the fine cast of four, who are on stage the whole time.
Unfortunately, the lyrics by Tony Award winner Steven Sater are often predictable and stale -- even when they manage to blend wonderfully with the Bacharach sound -- and his book (based on O'Henry's The Gift of the Magi) is surprisingly slight and trite.
Young Ben (Andrew Mueller) and Young Molly (Jenni Barber) meet cute at an Italian restaurant where he plays the piano while she serves the customers. His crush has prompted him to write a song for/about her and when he plays it at the restaurant she is both embarrassed and charmed. So begins their 20 plus year relationship, most of which is seen in flashback as remembered by the present-day Ben (Jason Danieley) and Molly (Michelle Duffy), who have long since separated.
The couple's Christmas Eve is spent at the Plaza Hotel (paid for by Molly) where they take turns reading O'Henry's story, from books they have gifted each other. The tradition continues in future years to good and bad effect and we hear most of the classic tale this way.
The couple move into Molly's place at her insistence, but the relationship is rocky and eventually Ben leaves. The main problem seems to be Molly's bipolar nature. She wants Ben to write songs for her and even buys him a baby grand Steinway, but when he scribbles lyric ideas, or gets lost at the keyboard, she gets upset.
He does compose one hit, enough to finance a tour of Europe. But when Ben bonds with a singer who really "gets" his songs -- and even plans to record at least one of them -- Molly becomes upset and forbids it. She thought Ben was writing songs about her and only for her. Ben gives in and then is cursed with writer's block, never completing another song.
Will Frears' direction keeps the show moving at a steady pace and he seamlessly blends the action of the young and present-day characters' interaction with each other. While most of the songs are done as duets or quartets, each is finally given a solo near the end and they make the most of it, especially Duffy who belts out an angry "Just Walk Away," turning it into a real showstopper.