Seen on Broadway: With Debbie Boone’s 1977 hit “You Light Up My Life” as its pedigree, the new musical In My Life--written and directed and produced by Joseph Brooks--might be approached with trepidation or eagerly anticipated, depending upon one’s view of that particular treacly love ballad. I was in the former category, but thankfully the show won me over with its oddball characters and gentle—if unremarkable—score of mostly ballads. The show involves an opera that God wants to put on about average people. To do this he enlists Winston (David Turner) to direct it. Turner is a mixture of Alan Cumming in Cabaret and Carol Burnett with a dash of Marilyn Manson (and, oddly, it works). The show’s odd couple focal point is J.T. (Christopher J. Hanke, who bears a striking resemblance to Zack from Saved by the Bell) and Jenny (Jessica Boevers). J.T. is a song writer with Tourette’s Syndrome, OCD, and other ailments that I won’t divulge here, while Jenny is an anal retentive personal ad proof reader for The Village Voice (and yet she can afford that cool Manhattan studio?). Other characters include J.T.’s dead mom (Roberta Gumbel) and sister Vera (Chiara Navarro), and Jenny’s friend Samantha (Laura Jordan) and her dead boyfriend Nick (Michael Halling), who was the drunk driver who killed J.T.’s kin. There’s also Al (Michael J. Farina) who hangs out in heaven with the other stiffs.
As J.T. and Jenny’s romance moves along, Winston gets new inspiration for his opera with Vera kibitzing from the sidelines and Al keeps auditioning with songs that sound like commercial jingles for Dr. Pepper and Volkswagen (and which are very funny, by the way). While the leads were certainly likable—at arm’s length anyway…you wouldn’t want to know them personally—the scene stealer is Turner whose self-referential comments to the audience and over-the-top antics were the show’s comic relief. Also, Navarro is one of those child singers who belts and it doesn’t seem entirely fitting for the character. It does help matters any that instead of acting, Navarro seems to be auditioning constantly for American Idol Junior. Despite being dead, she’s not overly sympathetic, unlike Halling and Gumbel, who both seemed to be audience favorites judging from the curtain call. Gumbel’s voice eclipsed all others’ in the cast and Halling has that tall, swaggering, chisled leading man look that could easily overshadow Hanke’s cute, non-threatening, boy band demeanor. Good thing Halling’s character is dead, at least for J.T., that is.
The lighting by recent Tony winner Christopher Akerlind is lovely, with a concise delineation between the scenes in heaven that are in a cool, stark blue (like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude) and the real world which is rich with color and grit. The sets by Allen Moyer are simple, yet striking, especially his take on heaven which resembles a tidy bureaucrat’s office. The costumes by Catherine Zuber—also a recent Tony Award grabber for Piazza--are quirky enough for the characters on earth but really soar, literally, during the heavenly scenes, especially with Winston’s Mackie-inspired getups as he stages various scenes from his opera. John H. Shiver’s sound design helped the songs sound fuller than they probably were and truly added momentum to the show. Complementing the lighting and sets were Wendall K. Harrington’s projections that went from setting the scene with various shots of Manhattan to creating a chorus line with cartoonish dancing skeletons, which was one of the show’s highlights…and just in time for Halloween. All in all, In My Life was a satisfying night at the theatre and it is the one of the few ORIGINAL musicals written for Broadway around at the moment, which makes it quite an anomaly indeed.
Credits: Lighting equipment was supplied by PRG; projection equipment was supplied by Scharff Weisberg; sound equipment supplied by Masque Sound; scenery constructed and automation equipment provided by Hudson Scenic Studios, Inc.; costume construction by Euro Co Costumes, Brian Hemesath, Carlos Campos, Bruce Manilla, Jill Andrews Taylor, and Jennifer Love Costumes. --Mark A. Newman
It’s time for Home Depot or Ikea to launch a John Lee Beatty collection. His set for Richard Greenberg’s new comedy, A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, would sell like hotcakes among do-it-yourselfers interested in recreating their own versions of the Hamptons. With its high wooden beams, modern but unimposing appliances and décor, and ample windows allowing in lots of light, Beatty’s contribution has a considerably stronger and more purposeful structure than anything else in the play, the latest from the hard-working but erratic Greenberg, who quite literally scrubbed down sexual and sportsman stereotypes in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Take Me Out. Despite the title, there’s no nudity in this Roundabout Theatre Company production, except, maybe, the absence of any strong or coherent theme.
On the plus side, the show has a big role for Jill Clayburgh, an always welcome presence as a cookbook author, and unites her with Richard Thomas, last seen in cap and bells in As You Like It at the Delacorte. They play Bess and Jeffrey, a couple liberal to the point of parody (and slightly frayed in middle age) who come apart at the seams when two of their adopted children, Caucasian Thad (Matthew Morrison, late of The Light in the Piazza) and African-American Juliet (Susan Kelechi Watson) return from a year-long trip to Europe—and announce their passionate love affair. This pours gasoline on the identity crisis of a third sibling, Bill, an Asian (James Yaegashi), who is the butt of a few too many one-liners about his race. A gloss of lesbianism is later slathered over the quasi-incest. Cheap shots abound, and a lot of them hit the net, giving the actors little to volley, as actors must in any good comedy. [The cheapest come from a little old lady neighbor character, played by a potty-mouthed Ann Guilbert.] I laughed a few times, but was mostly puzzled (starting with the title, which alludes to an anecdote on the European trip whose point is never really clarified). Was the playwright trying to deconstruct sitcoms? What was he trying to say about unity and dysfunction in family relationships? Or do Greenberg and director Doug Hughes (Doubt) want us to toss off our thinking caps for a couple of hours and just relax? Well, whatever; I mostly just sat there and contemplated the exquisitely cut carpet on the stairs, a sure sign that something wasn’t clicking.
A Naked Girl… is flying first-class at the American Airlines. Catherine Zuber’s costumes define comfortable casual, with a lived-in feeling, and you can sense the characters getting slightly itchy in their familiar clothes as the revelations pile up nervously around them. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting is spot-on in Beatty’s airy space, though maybe someone could have pruned the background greenery outside the windows, which suggests a rainforest more than tri-state foliage. There’s nice, unshowy work by composer and sound designer David Van Tieghem, too. [Great Lakes Scenic Studios built the scenery, PRG supplied the lights, and Sound Associates the audio.] It’s a good home, with an especially appetizing kitchen, that lacks for nothing except a sturdier theatrical foundation.--Robert Cashill