Everyone deserves a vacation, even artistic directors. I suspect that after producing an exceptional season of drama and musical revues at New Theatre, Rafael de Acha decided to take a break, and graciously hand over this summer's season to John A. Werkheiser, who will be staging the next three productions. While de Acha is still around physically, Werkheiser is at the helm, and if his first contribution -- Relationships -- is any indication of things to come, I urge de Acha to forget the leisure time and step back in immediately.
In fact, de Acha might have been subtly telling us something when he called this trio of productions "our light summer fare" (Hollywood Canteen and After Five follow in the coming months). At first I thought he used the term "light" to indicate musical revues, but then I recalled that de Acha himself had directed a revue of Leonard Bernstein's work this season -- Lenny -- which was anything but light; it had import and artistic integrity.
Not so in Werkheiser's case, and certainly not in the specific case of Relationships. Here light means inconsequential, pleasant but vapid, perhaps even shallow. This hodgepodge of Broadway songs thrown together under the slimmest of narrative pretexts (a writer tries to come up with an idea for a novel employing three characters involved in relationships ranging from friendship to love and marriage to divorce) is neither terrible nor embarrassing to the New Theatre's good name, though it surely doesn't add anything to that good name.
The show is stitched together with tunes from the 1940s through the 1970s, from Rodgers and Hart to Cole Porter to Stephen Sondheim to Stephen Schwartz. You'll get to hear many old favorites such as "Bewitched," "Falling in Love with Love," "Lotta Living to Do," "Losing My Mind," "Magic to Do," and "Where Is Love?" among others. But only true theater buffs will be able to identify from which plays they are drawn, for the New Theatre program offers no listing of composers or productions. (For example, did you know that "Bewitched" came from Pal Joey -- one of George Abbott's major successes?) Guessing the origin of the songs, as it turns out, is one of the more entertaining aspects of Relationships.
The other saving grace is Margy Shay as the femme fatale character. (Werkheiser did not give names to any of the characters.) It's almost as though the director decided to display Shay's abundant acting and singing talents at the expense of the rest of the cast, which is so noticeably beneath her level of expertise that she seems absolutely brilliant in contrast. Sadly, the other cast members, in their earnest efforts to deliver their songs with zeal, are painfully reminiscent of my own on-stage experiences. Yes, I move like a duck and sing with tremulous uncertainty. My acting style is heavy on self-consciousness and light on skill, which is why I'm a critic, not a performer. I can freely admit this about myself, and obviously I don't want to pay for the privilege of seeing my brand of mediocrity.
As the writer struggling with her novel, Helena De Torres tries to belt it out with a voice she simply doesn't have. Her acting expressions consist of melancholy and concern. That's it. Paul Gibson is miscast as a handsome love interest. Without being too harsh, I'll say that Pierce Brosnan might want to check out this guy for the new James Bond film. His demeanor is perfect for one of Ian Fleming's creepy villains. To say his acting is stiff is to understate the matter, and while his voice has a soothing, velvety quality, he avoids any emotional interpretation whatsoever. Brooke Baker-Pszyk, who completes the four-person cast, sings sweetly but nervously, acts without conviction, and moves like I do (a geek). Furthermore, thanks to Werkheiser's choreography, everyone dances with arms flailing and legs stretching awkwardly right and left. This isn't staging or dancing for grownups; this is the elementary school pageant.
Unlike City of Angels, in which the device of a writer's script coming to life before your eyes combines with the story of the writer himself, this revue builds no plot for either De Torres's aspiring writer or the characters she creates. I can only infer that she has just been dumped by a younger man and decides to immerse herself in constructing a novel to ease her pain, and for some unexplained reason her mind drifts back to famous Broadway tunes. By chapter eleven of her novel (which she completes near the end of act one), all she seems to have created is the tale of a handsome guy in love with Margy Shay's exotic, independent gal; as well as a lonely young virgin portrayed by Baker-Pszyk -- scant development for either a novel or a play. Act two picks up momentum when some semblance of dramatic action is introduced, but it is clearly far too little too late.
The credits for this production list Werkheiser as having "conceived" the piece and Judy Richman as having supplied "continuity dialogue." Wait a minute! Why not do what everyone else does and enlist someone to write a true plot? (It's called a "book" in the musical genre.) "Continuity dialogue" sounds like something out of a cheap movie trailer, which unfortunately is the quality of Richman's writing.
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All problems aside, no one sings dreadfully, and hearing those fine old songs is fun, thanks in part to Brian Conatser, the competent musical director and accompanying pianist. Best of all, the show moves along quickly. If for nothing else, Werkheiser should be praised for his pacing; normally, productions this pointless are equally tedious. Yet strangely enough -- and particularly owing to the considerable talents of Margy Shay -- Relationships has its pleasant moments. It is, however, very light.
Rafael de Acha must acknowledge the liabilities of setting such high standards for New Theatre by the excellence of his work. Everyone he hires will be judged in his shadow, and that leaves Werkheiser in the dark. I longed to see New Theatre performers such as Kimberly Daniel in the role played by De Torres, David Alt in the role played by Gibson, and a show about relationships featuring the best of Broadway's tunes conceived and directed by someone of de Acha's caliber. But I guess it's a little late in the game for such drastic measures.
This may not sound like much of an endorsement, but if you have nothing else to do one of these weekends, seeing Relationships would be better than watching most any of this summer's juvenile-oriented films. I'd rather hear Sondheim or Porter than "Yabba dabba do" any night.