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Jessie

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Musical biographies may be common on the New York stages today, but it's refreshing to see one that's admittedly fictional. A creative, original musical, Jessie is an impressive alternative featuring an attractive score, a strong design, and some solid performances - as well as one bona fide star turn - in its 14-member cast.

This production, directed by Gretchen Weigel is moving and entertaining from beginning to end, with almost no breaks in the action. The musical's book, attributed solely to Kurta, is the weak point, all that prevents Jessie from truly taking off. Not quite a book musical and not quite a concept musical, Jessie never finds its legs while it finds its story and tries to incorporate both styles with uneven - if never outright messy - results.

Further, the book is pretty standard stuff. Set in the 1970s, Jessie's book focuses on a talented young woman, the Jessie of the title, who, with her "soul brother" Ephram, gives up the world of soft religious rock and forms a band that first takes the underground music world by storm, and then conquers the mainstream arena as well. Predictably, fame comes with a price: Jessie is not immune to the industry's rampant drug use, love affairs come and go, and even death makes its sting felt... And so on. With the characters' frequent ethereal references to the role music plays in elevating our hearts and souls, Jessie preaches even as it grates as overly familiar and clichéd.

Yet, when the characters stop speaking and start singing, it's difficult not to be taken in. Tyme and Kurta's songs feel authentic, whether they are performance numbers or character pieces. The music always stays within its time period and cultural idiom, the lyrics a tribute to (and not a parody of) the heartfelt music of the time. This makes all the songs pleasant to hear and easy to relate to; even the hard rock songs are thoughtful and highly accessible, if the lyrics are occasionally obscured by Josh Adler's sometimes overwhelming - and overamplified - sound design. But, as a character is just as likely to pull out an acoustic guitar and sing without technological enhancement, it's hard to fault the music any way it's used here.

The performers contribute a great deal to this as well, looking and sounding decidedly period, with plenty of talent to go around, whether singing the songs (under the musical direction of Elaina Cope) or doing the undulating 70s dances of Stefan Sittig. Lamonaca is a friendly, brotherly type with an appealing light pop voice. Most of the other members of Jessie's band tend to blend together. The one who comes closest to escaping anonymity is Tito, the bass player with whom Jessie falls in love, played by Rik Sansone. But the other performers, whether in the ensemble or in the band (playing their own instruments) contribute well to the atmosphere of the show in both sight and sound.

But it's Kerry Flanagan, in the title role, who makes the strongest impression. Though laden with a massive singing task, featuring a seemingly endless series of vocally and emotionally intense songs, Flanagan never flags. She sounds great from the first moment to the last, and expertly portrays the sympathetic woman courting fame and toeing the line between childhood and adulthood.

Flanagan is an impressive talent, providing both the character and the show with the warmth and dedication any great star must. She's probably the best reason to see Jessie, but she's not the only one. Fans of this type of music will find themselves right at home at the Chelsea Playhouse for the next couple of weeks, and it's not hard to believe that Jessie - and Flanagan - will have impressive lives after the run of the show is concluded.

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Jessie
Through March 1
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission
Chelsea Playhouse, 125 West 22nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 757-7242