The wonder and heartbreak of first love is not where My Life With Albertine, the handsome but chilly musical adaptation of sections of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past that just opened at Playwrights Horizons, ends, but where it begins. Equally as important is how that experience impacts all that comes afterward.
In that sense, the show's author, Richard Nelson (also the librettist and co-lyricist), has succeeded beautifully. The portrait he paints of a man (clearly an older version of Proust himself, played by Brent Carver) who was forever changed by a difficult relationship with a beautiful young woman (the Albertine of the title, portrayed by Kelli O'Hara) is one of a man who never was truly able to move on, someone scarred so significantly that his life became wrapped up in an examination of what went wrong.
It's fitting, then, that the beginning of the man's tale as presented to us is the end of the story for him. Albertine appears seconds after the curtain goes up to sing "Is It Too Late," obviously the last words she ever wrote to him, and the first of a significant number of truly haunting songs Ricky Ian Gordon has composed for the show (he also served as co-lyricist).
This song is immediately followed by a return to the beginning of the story, in which the 17 year-old Marcel (Chad Kimball) arrives in Belbec-by-the-Sea to visit his grandmother (the endlessly versatile Donna Lynne Champlin). He quickly becomes enamored of the beautiful young Albertine, a spirit who will prove so free as the show progresses that the frustration the easily-envious Marcel feels will become the major issue between them. Her devotion to the frivolous life and his devotion to her may prove too incompatible for the two to stay together.
Gordon and Nelson occasionally score big with their songs in the first act - the bouncy "Belbec-by-the-Sea," Marcel's grandmother's lush and romantic "Lullabye," and "The Different Albertines," as ardent an expression of Marcel's romantic frustration as could be set to music. But during this time, the show never completely finds its stride; some musical moments feel too distanced from the book, with sections of dialogue sounding untrue or feeling overextended, and ideas not always fully realized. Nelson's "play-within-a-play" concept (the older Marcel is putting on a theatrical version of the story in his living room) never really gels, despite Thomas Lynch's attractive set and Susan Hilferty's frequently delightful costumes.
But the second act, which strips much of the show's artifice away and tells the story from inside the show-within-the-show - with the older Marcel playing a key role - is almost completely free of these problems. Yes, "I Want You," is mostly incongruous, existing primarily to give Emily Skinner (playing a minor role) a solo, but the second act is otherwise highly cohesive. All the music works: "Sometimes," the duet for the two Marcels is emotionally assailing; the show's gorgeous finale, "If It Is So," appropriately hopeful, a beacon of hope in the midst of despair; and even the four reprises peppering the second act seem ideally placed and executed.
Still, throughout, the show's score (orchestrated with smoky French flavor - including an accordion! - by Bruce Coughlin and with musical direction by Charles Prince) is an excellent example of one that truly develops, beginning - as the characters' emotions do - simply, and growing more complex and intertwining as situations dictate. The musical climax occurs during "The Letters," in which every human emotion seems to exist simultaneously in the missives the two lovers exchange at the stormiest part of their relationship. Coming on the heels of a different type of cacophony - entitled "The Street," exactly what it sounds like, and not what you may imagine - "The Letters" is musically and dramatically exquisite.
The same can be said of O'Hara. She shone in Follies and Sweet Smell of Success, but the scope and depth of talent she displays in My Life With Albertine suggests a real star power heretofore untapped. Though possessing a sumptuous, legit voice ideally suited to the heavy emotions pervading the show, her renderings of the blithely youthful "Ferret Song" or the down-and-dirty drinking ditty of "I Need Me a Girl" are no less revelatory and fully realized. O'Hara is a major talent deserving of the vehicle that will make her the household name she deserves to be.
Next to O'Hara, nearly everything else pales. Carver's performance is intelligently articulated, but overexposed and underdeveloped (mostly in the first act, but like everyone else, he does better in the second); Kimball acts decently and sings well, but comes across as a shade too modern and knowing; Champlin, playing two roles, makes the most out of her usually less-than-stellar material; and some of the other performers like Skinner, Brooke Sunny Moriber, and Laura Woyasz form a deliriously overqualified chorus, seldom put to best use.
My Life With Albertine is always intriguing, though a few problems - primarily its leaden first act - prevent it from being as exciting in execution as it is in its promise. If Gordon and O'Hara can build upon their myriad successes here, one may once again have faith that there is justice in the theatrical world.