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A CurtainUp Review

Matthew Shepard and Amy Bodnar in Sessions
Matthew Shepard and Amy Bodnar in Sessions. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Sessions, had it arrived to a local stage several decades earlier, might have been considered an innovative or attention worthy musical. As it stands, its official opening was on the same day that only a few blocks away revivals of A Chorus Line and Company battled for a Tony Award. This is a rather ominous coincidence, considering that Sessions borrows heavily from each of those ground-breaking concept musical hits of the 1970s while failing to do anything innovative itself.

This grandchild of the creations of Michael Bennett and Stephen Sondheim, among others, also owes a lot to a fine but much less-known Off-Broadway musical of some years ago called I Can't Keep Running in Place, itself depicting a group of patients guided collectively by a psychiatrist. Even at Sessions' fairly reasonable Off-Broadway price of $50, most ticket buyers are looking for something more substantial than the TV shows popularizing psychology which featured Bob Newhart and Judd Hirsch. Unfortunately, while Sessions is far from terrible, it hardly ever rises above sitcom depth to become exciting or potentially memorable, especially in its mostly superficial and usually predictable depiction of both character and situation.

Pete Peterson, the central character, is a psychiatrist who conducts both individual sessions and group meetings of a number of his patients. Not surprisingly, his own life has as many confusions and stresses as those of his patients. While he apparently has not enrolled himself as a patient with another psychiatrist, he does talk to himself, and his conversations with the "inner voice" attempt to reveal to the audience the real character of the esteemed doctor. Unfortunately, this artifice instead generally bogs down the play, and occasionally leads to confusion.

The set, primarily depicting Dr. Pete's well-appointed office, is outstanding. It not only effectively conveys a prosperous, sought-after doctor's facility, but also employs a moving outer wall that fluidly allows scenes in the waiting room and elsewhere to be presented. Unfortunately, the doctor's generic polyester-appearing attire suggests a struggling traveling salesman who has yet to prosper rather than someone at the top of his profession. Further, the casting of the youthful Matthew Shepard in this central role puts a burden of maturity and assuredness on an actor who has not yet reached the considerable levels of same needed for the character. I couldn't resist wondering how much more effective the show might be with Al Bundonis, Mr. Shepard's understudy, who normally plays a much smaller role of Baxter, a wealthy real estate tycoon. Mr. Bundonis is quite effective in his own role, and his solo turn "I Never Spent Time with My Dad" is one of the show's stronger moments.

The entire supporting cast is quite strong, notably including Kelli Maguire as a woman suffering rejection by her mother, David Patrick Ford as a confused youth obsessed with the folk singer Bob Dylan, Scott Richard Foster as a lonely young man who can't get over a woman he barely knew, and Trisha Rapier as a battered cop's wife. Ms. Rapier, in fact, has an extraordinary speech explaining her self-destructive behavior, registering her as the play's most engaging character. As Leila, the unstoppably sexy and purposefully tempting patient that Dr. Peterson cannot get out of his mind, Amy Bodnar is suitably alluring magnet for both the doctor and the audience. A newly retired married pair who have moved to Manhattan from Indiana are written as a pure cliché, but Bertilla Baker and Jim Madden manage to make them relatively appealing nevertheless.

The music for this sentimental soap opera often is engaging, although like so many shows, it mostly sounds like many things already heard too often before. At its best, as in a song for Leila called "I Will Never Find Another You," there is a haunting quality recalling French film music. But too often the driving orchestrations try too hard for the modest 100-seat theater, recalling the forced-fed contemporized re-orchestration that some shows undergo in revival, as in the wall of sound treatment received by Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying in its Broadway revival.

Part of the problem is that the producers seem to be thinking about a big theater before they can properly serve a modest one, and the facial microphones waste much of the genuineness and immediacy that the actors are bringing to their roles. To paraphrase one of the character's lines, "think of how much would be accomplished by turning down the din." The lyrics unfortunately are as predicable as the book, with rhymes often headlining themselves as much as do typical limericks.

To put the most positive spin on Sessions, while some reworking surely would help, as a small show with modest accomplishments, it already deserves an audience, albeit a patient and minimally-demanding one. Its charms certainly are as worthy as those of some of the musical behemoths of the just-concluded Broadway season such as High Fidelity, The Pirate Queen, and Legally Blonde.

Book, Music, and Lyrics by Albert Tapper
Directed and choreographed by Steven Petrillo
Musical Arrangements, Orchestrations, and Musical Supervision by Steven Gross
Music Director: Fran Minarik
Cast: Bertilla Paker, Amy Bodnar, Al Bundonis, David Patrick Ford, Scott Richard Foster, Jim Madden, Kelli Maguire, Trisha Rapier, Matthew Shepard, and Ed Reynolds Young.
Set and Costume Design: Peter Barbieri, Jr.
Lighting Design: Deborah Constantine
Sound Design: Wallace J. Flores
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including one intermission.
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street.
Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 PM. From 5/30/07 to 8/18/08; opening 6/10/07
Viewed by Brad Bradley at the June 7 preview

Musical numbers: I'm Only Human , It's All on the Record, Wendy, Above the Clouds, I'm an Average Guy, Feels Like Home, Breathe, The Murphy's Squabble, If I Could Just Be Like Pete, I Saw the Rest of My Life, You Should Dance, This Is One River I Can't Cross, Living Out a Lie, I Never Spent Time with My Dad, Suddenly Somehow, I Just Want to Hold You for a While, There Should Be Love, The Sun Shines In, I Will Never Find Another You.
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