In the time I've occupied this position, I've seen dozens of shows A some good, a few excellent, and many fair, poor, or simply awful. However, I've only twice found it necessary for the maintenance of my sanity to leave at intermission after experiencing just one of two acts: first at Give 'Em Hell Harry, the Coconut Grove Playhouse borefest featuring Kevin McCarthy regularly forgetting most of his lines in a one-man show about a dry, Perot-ish dead president. After I committed this blatant act of rejection, I quickly checked through history and found that critics from Shaw to Kenneth Tynan had done the same thing when they couldn't tolerate the unbearable for one more microsecond.
Still, I continued to avoid this tactic, because I do respect the efforts of actor, director, and producer and feel that most productions deserve a full viewing before any decision can be reached.
Not so with What About Luv? however, currently wasting space and time at the Actors' Playhouse. Murray Schisgal's 1964 comedy was a cheesy, forgettable Broadway offering; why a new team decided to put music to this cliche-ridden snail of a show twenty years later totally escapes me. Perhaps the composer and lyricist sensed they were equal in mediocrity to the original script and so had found a perfect artistic marriage.
The writing and melodies are so dreadful, so lacking in originality, excitement, or any semblance of dramatic action, it's not fair to lay much blame on director David Arisco and the cast, which consists of Carole Caselle, Kenn Christopher, and Tony Triano. Well, you could say that the performers sing and act listlessly, and that each seems far too old for the part. Supposedly, all these characters graduated from somewhere called Poly Arts U fifteen years ago. Especially in Triano's case, 30 years ago would seem more realistic.
But no one could excel with these lines and lyrics, no matter how much skill and youthful energy they might possess. The tale, originally set on the Brooklyn Bridge, has been moved to a drawbridge stuck in midair on some causeway in Miami Beach A the only believable plot detail. However, set director David Herring obviously became confused and placed a bench downstage-left, marked "New York." Wherever these characters meet, suffice it to say they are consumed with thoughts of hopelessness. Harry Berlin, played by Triano, has no women, no friends, no money, and no charisma. Just as he's about to end it all via the big jump, Milt Manville (Christopher), an old college male cheerleading buddy, appears on the same bridge, first bursting with glee about his successful life, then just as suddenly and unconvincingly explaining that he wants to dash his wife to the bottom of the bay because she won't give him a divorce and allow him to marry the mistress he craves. He has summoned Ellen, the wife, to meet him at this spot, where he plans to swiftly dispatch her to a watery grave.
A cute, nutty musical concept occurs to everyone. Why not match up lonely Harry and smart, snotty Ellen? Then conflict will turn to joy and romance, especially seeing as how both Harry and Ellen play flamenco guitar. When Ellen arrives, she (naturally) follows the plan, falling immediately in love with her husband's old friend. Best of all, the feeling is mutual. To prove how deeply the two are smitten, they rip their clothes to shreds and step on each other's toes.
Does all of this sound worse than stupid, or is it just me?
The snippets of song underlying the nonsensical dialogue sound like something a tone-deaf person made up in the shower. Think of a droning sound that varies by maybe two notes. Whole chunks of the action lead absolutely nowhere, and the jokes aren't nearly worthy of that term; think of them more as elementary-school insults.
Which leads me once again to question where the musical form is heading. On the large scale, empty spectacles such as Will Rogers Follies, Grand Hotel, and City of Angels offer scant stories, hookless tunes, and bland performances, embodying the theatrical equivalent of kick-boxing films: all special effects, no special intellect. Andrew Lloyd Webber certainly helped this trend along by achieving great respect and monetary success with nonshows such as Cats and Starlight Express. In the smaller arena, rotten eggs like What About Luv? are churned out by hacks accepted into the musical circle for lack of any better alternative. Worst of all, several current Broadway musical hits A witness Guys and Dolls A come from another era altogether.
Even the last best hope for revival of the form, the rock extravaganza Tommy, is said to create less impact on the stage than it did even in the film version. The bleak outlook leads James Magruder to question in the March issue of American Theatre magazine: "...why does the musical, that frayed, derelict, bald, hopelessly withering yet incurable jejune form, continue to exert such fascination and inspire such improbable undertakings?"
The answer clearly lies in Magruder's later comment. "When they work," he notes, "or are deemed to work, musicals are magic. When they don't, they make the biggest stinks and die the loudest deaths."
Unfortunately, thanks to the nature of local theater, What About Luv? can't die the thunderous and rapid death it deserves. So it will just make one of the biggest stinks of the season. If you clap your hands together loudly enough and say, "I believe in art," a team of authors might come along one day and figure out how to combine the weight of plays with the thrill of musicals, to make the form singable and significant at the same time. When that day comes, fifth-rate attempts might finally fade out. But not, evidently, until.