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A CurtainUp Review

by Les Gutman

Jeff Krell is a comic strip writer who knows how to write a funny story. Romanovsky and Phillips are singer-songwriters (they've been called the gay Simon and Garfunkel) who know how to write a funny song. Does it follow that they can put their heads together and write a musical comedy? As it turns out, yes.

Jayson is based on Krell's syndicated comic strip of the same name. Gay farm boy Jayson Callowhill (Brian Cooper) moves to the city after college, soon to be joined by his friends, Arena Stage (Susan Agin), a Jewish "fag hag," and Robyn Ricketts (Craig Dawson), a crossdressing male pornographer. The trio treads in a milieu of triumphs and defeats (mostly dealing with love or money) that Whit Stillman might have filmed were he gay. Arena and Robyn are always at each other's throats, with seemingly little in common other than a wish that their relationship with Jayson could be "more than friends". Enter Eduardo Rivera (Mark Haen), Robyn's primo porn star, who immediately becomes "more than" Jayson's friend. Small world: Eduardo used to be Ed Rosenblatt, Arena's high school beau.

Lack of success in the job market and the resulting financial pressures lead Arena and Jayson to the altar, a sham concocted to cash in on a substantial dowry promised by Arena's parents, Stan (Kenny Morris) and Stella (Jane Smulyan). But Jayson can't say "I do," and leaves Arena for the man he loves. Robyn's first feature flick, Genital Hospital, catapults Eduardo to stardom, and Jayson finds himself single again after Eduardo heads for the glitter of Hollywood. After more job woes, Jayson and Arena again become friends and, this being musical comedy, everything ends on an upbeat, if improbable, note.

Krell does not pretend to be writing anything especially important here. Together with his songwriting collaborators, he achieves a gay sensibility that's honest, and fun, even if populated mostly with stereotypes that would be roundly criticized if coming from the outside. Dialogue and lyrics are generally well-crafted, often biting and occasionally poignant. Music covers a range of styles, and is pleasantly evocative. Several songs stand out: a clever one about the boys of porn ("Video Boys"), the well-choreographed, endearing "My Mother's Clothes" and something of a gay anthem called "Authentic". Although not without weak spots and faults, as a first musical theater effort, Jayson is far above average. It's a book musical with a story to tell and well-constructed, understandable, integrated songs. All of which suggests creators who, while not old musical theater hands, have done good, confident work.

This production unfortunately does not hold up its end of the bargain. The problems start with the direction, and are exacerbated by a terribly ill-conceived set. These are obstacles the inexperienced but earnest, hardworking leads are not able to overcome.

It's a bit of a generalization, but the downfall seems rooted in Jayson's provenance. Both Director Michaels and Set Designer McNicholas have worked to bring the comic strip to life faithfully. This sounds like, but is not a good idea. Characters onstage must function onstage, not as they do on paper. They must interact; they must react. Here, the characters speak almost as if in frames; conversation, especially clever conversation, is directed at the audience, not to the other characters. Facial expressions, once assumed, appear almost frozen in place; mugging is rampant. Although choreographed pieces reveal much grace and agility, the characters otherwise often appear strangely wooden.

Economics has no doubt played a part in the show's problems, but money is not the culprit. Excessive doubling, perhaps unavoidable, not only has several cast members scampering from role to role, but even forces Arena's father offstage for his own daughter's wedding, because Kenny Morris must also play the rabbi (presumably more important than the father of the bride). Morris and Smulyan, both seasoned actors who have done far better work, play parents to both Jayson and Arena. Astoundingly, Morris is called upon to play a total of seven roles. Most of these transitions are not handled with particular grace.

The set, a two-tiered affair, does not facilitate the production.. The lower level of the set design recreates the image found in Krell's strip almost perfectly but, here again, this loyalty is misguided when it leads to a clumsy onstage bottleneck. The "upstairs" portion of the set is so high in the geometry of the theater's shallow stage that it not only is difficult to see and hear, it also makes watching anything on the upper plane uncomfortable for the audience. Complimentary neck pillows would have been a nice touch.

If I sound a bit disappointed, I am. Unexploited potential has that effect on me. Although no one would tout Jayson as the next Oklahoma, it deserves better than the cards it was dealt here.
by Jeff Krell based on his comic strip 
Music and lyrics by Ron Romanovsky and Paul Phillips 
Directed by Jay Michaels 
starring Brian Cooper, Susan Agin and Craig Dawson 
with Mark Haen, Jane Smulyan, Kenny Morris and 2 others 
Scenic Design: Jim McNicholas 
Costume Design: Julia N. Van Vliet 
Lighting Design: Roger Formosa 
Music Director: Simon Deacon 
The 45th Street Theatre, 354 West 45th Street (8/9 AV) (212) 279 - 4200 
opened July 10 
Reviewed by Les Gutman July 11, 1998
©Copyright July 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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