Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Introducing Three Small Musicals with Potential for Life Beyond the NYC Theater Scene

Small off-Broadway shows are quite capable of standing proudly beside their hot-shot cousins on the Great White Way. Last season, for example, provided theatergoers with some wonderful fare, including at least three stand-out musicals: The Toxic Avenger, The Kid, and Yank. It is no exaggeration to say that all three were head and shoulders above much of the season’s new Broadway shows, at far more affordable ticket prices.

This summer has given us the opportunity to see several more entrants into the field. I would like to talk about three of them that, while not landing in the “must see” category, I found to be original and interesting, with a good potential for future lives.

The first of these, and perhaps the most polished, is With Glee, now nearing the end of what has been an well-received run at the Kirk Theatre at Theatre Row. With book, music, and lyrics by John Gregor, With Glee was first workshopped at New York University’s Skirball Center (Gregor is an NYU alum in musical theater writing) and then given a production as part of the New York Musical Theater Festival back in 2007.

The musical, which recounts the lives of a motley crew of young teenagers attending a boarding school “for bad kids,” boasts engaging, quirky characters, winning performances, a snappy score, and smart directing by Igor Goldin, who helmed the York Theater’s Yank, a show that is about to make its Broadway transfer. With Glee does not have the chops of Yank, but it owes at least a nod to another successful musical in which adult actors played middle school students; indeed, my friend Carol, when she saw With Glee, referred to it as “Spelling Bee Lite,” an apt description of the show’s style and sensibilities.

With Glee would be a good fit for a run at the New World Stages, home of The 39 Steps, Avenue Q, and the ever popular Naked Boys Singing. It may also wind up having an extended life as a staple of community theaters and high schools. It certainly would be interesting to see the roles of teens played by teens for a change.

A second show worth mentioning, Falling for Eve, was penned by this year’s Tony winner for best original score and for best book of a musical, Joe DiPietro (for Memphis). Falling for Eve is his take on the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, with music by Bret Simmons and lyrics by David Howard. There are some original ideas explored within this admittedly lightweight entry, including a God who is both male and female, a pair of all-to-human angels who push the plot along (no snake in this Garden), and, most interesting, a strong-willed Eve, who leaves Eden to explore the world on her own, while Adam obediently stays behind.

While Falling for Eve is not a terribly memorable show, the bland production it was given at the York Theater did not serve it particularly well. In my view, it deserves another shot with better—well, pretty much, with better everything. I suspect that, in the right hands, this is a show that might find its audience away from the New York theater arena. I can even picture it being performed in rep with The Diary of Adam and Eve from The Apple Tree (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick).

To wrap up this consideration of new shows–with-potential, I’d like to mention a work that was offered as part of this summer’s New York International Fringe Festival, the always-unpredictable “running-of-the-bulls” event that throws together something in the neighborhood of 200 shows at 18 venues in 16 days.

I have yet to immerse myself in the insanity that is Fringe, but I did catch a musical that might just stand a chance if the folks in charge keep working on it. The show is called Menny and Mila, with book, music, and lyrics by Paul Schultz, who is a writer and editor at the New York Daily News.

The show tells the story of Menny, who is, interestingly enough, a writer and editor at the New York Daily News. Menny decides to sponsor a Russian woman, Mila, whom he has met on the Internet, to come to America as a possible love match. Menny is happiest when he can take the lead in their relationship, showing Mila the ropes of living in the Big Apple and expecting her to just melt in his arms. For her part, Mila—while she likes Menny and appreciates his support--is excited about finding her own way. Schultz has created a pair of likeable, if mismatched, characters; neither is interested in taking advantage of the other as one might cynically predict to be the case. The storyline leads us into some interesting situations (his dysfunctional family; her sexist workplace colleagues), and offers up some enjoyable tunes and an interesting set of supporting characters. Gotta say, the charm of Menny and Mila shined through the dismal production values of a show-on-the-run, and I would like to see it nurtured further along.

So there you have it, three musicals with the potential for an extended life beyond their brief runs off Broadway. The lesson in all of this is that not every show needs to be tailored for the New York City crowd in order to be successful. Each of these—With Glee, Falling for Eve, and Menny and Mila—offers ideas, musical voices, and a real spark of talent that should be nurtured and supported, lest the well truly dry up to all but jukebox musicals and Wintuk!

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