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|A CurtainUp Review
A Good Swift Kick
by Les Gutman
Quibbles aside, this is an enjoyable evening out. It is entertaining, most of the performances are quite good, the direction is top-notch and the material can be both funny and well-crafted. Yet somehow it just feels wrong.
What's the matter? It's out of place. This is a show that would have been right at home, and appreciated, in a cabaret setting somewhere on the west side. (The Triad, on 72nd Street, comes quickly to mind.) Staging it in a nice, small off-Broadway theater in the East Village is like firing a double barreled shotgun at it at close range. (This is a bit of an inside joke: in its two earlier incarnations, in California and at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, the show was called Both Barrels).
Everything about this show would go down better in a more relaxed atmosphere. Cabaret patrons might not blink at spending $50 for a fluffy 90 minute show (yes, that's the asking price here), but it's pretty steep for an narrow orchestra seat and no refreshments. Expectations for the production values (none of which set off any fireworks here) also wouldn't be as high.
But we are in a theater, and we don't get what we bargained for. When one promises a good swift kick at topical politics in the East Village, it had better carry a little sting. John Forster shows us he can be clever and funny, but he's no Lenny Bruce. (Not, mind you, that he's trying to be.) His is comfortable -- here's that word again -- cabaret humor.
The appeal of many of his songs ("musical essays, written over a period of years" per the playbill) has also been tarnished by the passage of time. The revue often seems like a retrospective of Forster's work. (The song list conveniently shows the year each song was written.) But Forster has not earned a retrospective of his work, so it just seems lazy, another adjective we don't abide much in theaters.
The show-opener, "In the Closet," is about the military quot;don't ask, don't tell" policy. This would have been cute in Clinton's first years in office, but we are in his last years. It sets a bad precedent, quickly followed by an unfortunate song about political action committees -- "The PAC Man" -- featuring Jesse Helms singing rap. It succeeds in finding not only a subject that is past its prime, but a metaphor that is as well. Even more recent memories seem to dredge up topics we'd just as soon leave behind. "Legacy" treads in the particularly banal waters: the Clinton's exploits, updated even to refer to her pending New York aspirations. Less political targets don't fare much better: a jab at Paul Simon's Graceland ("Fusion", a song inspired by the opening of Eurodisney ("Tragique Kingdom") and a torch song about that the hot-pop psychology of the 80's, "Codependent with You."
Forster has better luck with his less time-dependent "relationship" songs. Especially good are a suite of three: "Way Down Deep", "A Mismatch Made in Hell" and "Spores." And then there's perhaps his best song, a paean to the Massachusetts towns named after women, "Entering Marion." Forster has a good ear and pen for musical comedy; the lasting impression is that he needs to flex his creative muscle a little more often.
There is a predictability to Forster as well. It extends not only to subject matter -- there's rarely any mystery where he's going with his songs, no one is likely to be left behind -- but also to form. Perhaps it is a testament to the quality of his work that I found myself finishing his rhymes before they were sung, but it seems dangerously close to the comedy of the familiar -- the art of getting people to laugh at something because they recognize it. This, too, is much more palatable when our expectations are nothing more than entertainment.
The performers are decidedly not the problem here. Both women are outstanding, in quite different ways. Elisa Surmont is a near-ideal cabaret performer, combining a vivacious personality with a good, versatile voice and perfect-pitch comic timing. Wanda Houston has a tremendous belter's voice and a fearless stage presence. Of the men, Jim Newman shines, dexterously slaloming down the challenging course of varied voices and poses laid out for him and still coming out with a persona of his own. D'Monroe is effervescent as well as versatile, and sings and dances with extraordinary range. Both of them put poor David Naughton to shame. Although Naughton has one or two redeeming moments, they can't overcome his overall sense of discomfort: he does several impersonations intentionally, but most of the time he evinces, certainly not on purpose, the now-famous stiffness of Al Gore.
Finally, to an overdue explanation of the quote above. As a matter of practice, I don't read other reviews until I've written my own, but it is fairly common knowledge that the reaction of the chief New York Times critic to the show last week was not glowing. It may have been one kick they were not counting on, but it did have one positive effect: the resulting late addition to the script got one of the show's biggest laughs and, funny, it's just about the only line that could be called bitingly satiric.