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A CurtainUp Review
Romantic Poetry

I can only regret that I didnít spend more time examining your roots.—Fred
This is my natural color. — Connie
The roots Fred wishes he had examined pertain to Connie's origins in Woodmere, a Long Island town used as the show's running joke.
Romantic Poetry
Emily Swallow and Ivan Hernandez in Romantic Poetry
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Manhattan Theater Club's first of the season shows -- To Be Or Not to Be at its Broadway home, and Romantic Poetry at its Stage II theater at City Center brought in a landslide of naysayers. I went to see both shows after their official openings desperately hoping to disagree with the early naysayers. I've already clocked in on why a thumbs up was not to be for To Be or Not to Be (review), and MTC has since then announced that show's early retirement. Now that I've seen Romantic Poetry, I once again find myself unable to be the maverick to endorse John Patrick Shanley's rambling little musical. Contrary to its name it's neither scintillatingly romantic nor can it lay claim to lyrics remotely akin to poetry.

What makes the failure of Romantic Poetry so disappointing is that it promised to be so much more, given the stellar credentials of its collaborators, playwright John Patrick Shanley, and composer, Henry Krieger. Shanley, whose Playbill bio runs a modest two lines was not too modest to take on both the book and the lyrics and also direct. A full length resume would encompass almost two dozen plays (including the Pulitzer winning Doubt) as well as a fistful of screenplays (the most famous being the Oscar winning Moonstruck). Krieger, his partner in this miss-the-boat venture, wrote the music for Dreamgirls as well as Side Show, a new production of which is in the works.

It's understandable that the prolific Shanley, who in recent years has focused on serious dramas like Doubt and Defiance, and political satires like Dirty Story, might want to revisit his Italian-American romances (shades of Moonstruck and the similar and goofier Italian American Reconciliation), with the added twist of musicalizing that visit. But, while the under-appreciated A Sailor's Song produced by the LAByrinth Theater Company in 2004 (see link below), delightfully kept breaking into dance mode, Shanley fails to make a graceful leap into full musical mode.

The libretto for Romantic Poetry is remarkably flat footed, as is the direction. Krieger's score, while pleasant and certainly diverse is hamstrung by Shanley's rhyme and hokey metaphor-pushing lyrics (heinous/penis. . ."You are a golf course beautifully mowed / I am a bungalow not up to code"). The songs come as regularly (and often out of left field rather than organically) as commercials in a TV show. Thus, like an opera, the show's program does not include a song list (or maybe even Shanley and Krieger have come to realize that their songs are not memorable enough to waste paper on them).

The story, can be boiled down to a single sentence: Six silly and uninteresting characters in search of a few songs worth singing, and a plot worth following.

Those six characters are newlyweds (each for the third time) Connie (Emily Swallow) and Fred (Ivan Hernandez), a cell-phone saleman with the heart of a poet which she wants him to nurture. Frankie (Jerry Dixon), the wedding caterer and Mary (Patina Renea Miller), the manager of their honeymoon hotel, are another pair of lovebirds with dreams of more satisfying careers. Both couples go their separate ways, at least for a while. To further complicate the slap-dash plot and add comic relief, we have two clowns who happen to be Connie's former husbands, Red (Jeb Brown) and Carl (Mark Linn-Baker). I suppose the point of all these people's shenanigans is that it's better to embrace love and poetry than the almighty dollar.

Oh, and let's not forget a curse on a bride from Woodmere a Long Island town whose only distinction from similar upscale suburban communities is that it is part of what is widely identified as The Five Towns (the other four being Inwood, Lawrence, Cedarhurst and Hewlett). The only one of the five towns heavily populated by Italians like Connie is Inwood and not the once all WASP and now largely Jewish Woodmere. Perhaps because it better fit his rhyme schemes, Shanley made Woodmere Connie's home town and the butt of the show's running joke. As if to stage direct the audience to laugh loudly, every mention of Woodmere is accompanied by a burst of lightning and a fair number in the audience at the performance I attended (probably Long Island MTC members) did indeed laugh on cue.

Good troopers that they are the actors do their best to rise above Romantic Poetry's mediocrity. Several cast members have survived previous musical flops (Jeb Brown and Emily Swallow are both graduates of High Fidelity and Brown was also in Ring of Fire). Mark Linn-Baker, the most widely experienced cast member, and Jeb Brown as his clowning partner, manage to wring some humor out of their shtick. Patina Renea Miller and Jerry Dixon (especially Miller) are also excellent.

David Korins' Las Vegas Lite set with a ramp, two curtains and a less than impressive chandelier, accommodates the excellent musicians at either side of the stage. It's a scene that seems to beg for the audience to be seated cabaret style at little tables and chairs. A drink or two might just add the satisfied feeling not provided by the show itself.

Dirty Story
A Sailor's Song— A Watercolor
Italian AmericanReconciliation

Book and lyrics by John Patrick Shanley
Music by Henry Krieger
Directed by Mr. Shanley
Cast: Jeb Brown (Red), Jerry Dixon (Frankie), Ivan Hernandez (Fred), Mark Linn-Baker (Carl), Patina Renea Miller (Mary) and Emily Swallow (Connie).
Sets by David Korins;
Costumes by Laura Bauer
Lighting by Donald Holder
Sound by Brian Ronan
Music director and vocal arranger, Sam Davis
Orchestrations by August Eriksmoen;
Music coordinator, Howard Joines
Musical staging by Devanand Janki
Running time: 2 hours with intermission.
Manhattan Theater Club, at City Center, Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan (212) 581-1212 From 9/30/08; opening 10/28/08; closing 12/14/08.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 11/02/08

Songs (not listed in the program): Romantic Poetry, Connie My Bride, Destiny, The Five Towns, I Have No Words, For a Third Time, Rumba Woman, Go through the Motions, Trouble, Wait a Minute, What About Love? Where Is Our Real Life? While You Were in the Lobby, So I Got Married/He's Rich/I'm Bored, Crazy Lights, Is Anybody Home?/There's a Fire, Through the Night, The Curse, Do You Think It's Easy? An Ordinary Man, You're My Only Guy, No One Listens to the Poor, Give Me Love, or Let Me Wait, Beauty, Walking up the Stairs.
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