Given its firm reliance on violence, treachery, sex, and jazz, you'd expect the new musical The City Club, which just opened at the Minetta Lane Theatre, to be smoldering almost nonstop. But it's not until well into the second act that it generates any discernible heat.
That's the point at which Crystal (Kristen Martin) has had it. Having toiled away as a chorus girl in the City Club, the night spot her boyfriend Chaz Davenport (Andrew Pandaleon) inherited from his deadbeat father, she's just discovered that Chaz has been pursuing a hot-and-heavy fling with newly arrived soloist Maddy Bondurant (Ana Hoffman). When Crystal takes to the stage for her solo spot, she's already seething; her song, "It Ain't Right," about (shockingly enough) a woman who's been jilted by her lover, only brings out the rest of her barely suppressed rage. And while she belts out the blues powerfully enough to crack the rafters, bartender Doc (Patrick O'Neill) and chorine Lily (Kaitlin Mesh) reenact their own, violently choreographed, love story.
This moment's fusion of anger, sound, and lithe bodies clawing against the throes of lust is both exciting and, at the performance I attended, literally show-stopping. Alas, it's the only one that librettist Glenn M. Stewart, composers James Compton, Tony De Meur, and Tim Brown (the last being credited with this particular song), choreographer Lorin Latarro, and director Mitchell Maxwell have managed to create. For the rest of the show's uncomfortably long two hours, you're instead watching a bunch of hard-working performers struggling to kindle sparks in a rain storm.
The City Club is one of those shows that requires you to supply most of the details needed for basic theatrical functioning. We never know in exactly which metropolis the action unfolds, for example, and the era is every bit as fuzzy (though, given the noir-infused elements and a couple of half-hearted racism-focused half-subplots, one suspects the late 20s or early 30s). Chaz is fighting against not just himself but also a scheming police lieutenant (Peter Bradbury), an amorous critic (O'Neill again), and the nefarious, never-seen Committee, many of whom are conspiring to transform the respectable establishment into a gambling establishment where the dancing girls (gasp) wear black.
Becoming involved in a plot this generic is simply not easy. The vague threats closing in on Chaz and Crystal; the matter of how and why the lieutenant and Maddy, a black singer trying to break into an unfriendly environment, are working together; and whether virtuosic piano player Parker (Kenny Brawner) really is who he claims to be are all fraying strands of narrative that fail to weave into anything even moderately compelling. The gunfire-fueled climax, which is supposed to be packed with tension, elicited audible laughs at the performance I attended — for, I'm sorry to say, excellent reasons.
The good news is that the cast, although not exactly bursting with charisma, is incredibly talented and a lot of fun to watch. Pandaleon convinces as a brash self-starter guided by forces beyond his control, and sings with bright-eyed conviction. Bradbury avoids mustache twirling in his maybe-bad-guy role and keeps you guessing about his true motivations throughout, as does Hoffman, who injects Maddy with plenty of quiet torment. Martin is a superb singer and a capable actress who strikes just the right combination of hardness and vulnerability, and along with her chorus line cohorts Mesh, Emily Tyra, and Autumn Guzzardi makes for a knockout ensemble when dancing in David C. Woolard's next-to-nothing costumes.
Unfortunately, the writing is just as skimpy as the girls' clothes, packed with forgettable songs that too obviously comment on their singers' motivations without a framing meta-concept (as in Chicago) that might make things less cringingly coincidental. Compton's orchestrations have the proper early-20th-century sound and Rob Bissinger's spare set the right pseudo-elegant look (as lit by lighting designer David F. Segal), but Latarro's largely uninventive dances, Maxwell's scattered staging, and Stewart's threadbare book overwhelm the few things the production otherwise gets right.
It's worth noting that this is Stewart's first musical; scanning the Playbill reveals his love of theatre emerged from behind an Oriental Studies major from Oxford, a career in the motion picture industry, published books and poems, and his becoming "a leading expert" on the Middle East. Such a diverse background suggests a range of interests and experiences that could lead to any number of fascinating musicals if they were explored to their fullest. But going halfway on everything except the scorching "It Ain't Right" has resulted in The City Club being one not worth patronizing.
The City Club