The most captivating embrace of the season occurs between two characters who never even touch. The ecstatic, erotic moment in question happens in the second act of A Fine and Private Place, the gentle, troubled new musical being produced by the York Theatre Company. What's more, it happens between two ghosts.
The two spirits, Michael Morgan (Glenn Seven Allen) and Laura Durand (Christiane Noll), are inhabiting - not quite haunting - the Yorkchester Cemetery in the North Bronx, trying to make the best of the indeterminate time they have left. They've found in death the love they couldn't in life, and knowing that any day they might vanish from existence completely, they plan to embrace it while they can.
Yet they're incorporeal, even to each other, so physical contact of any kind, is apparently impossible. They can come within inches of each other, but no closer: This makes the performers' demonstrating how close, and yet how far, the two lovers remain from each other more moving still.
And as long as A Fine and Private Place, which is based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle, centers on Michael and Laura's struggle to connect, the show has all the emotional and theatrical power you could wish for. But when they dissolve into the background - as ghosts, this is something they do frequently - so too go most of the gratifying successes of Erik Haagensen and Richard Isen's musical, leaving behind a jarringly uneven, syrupy residue.
Mired in it is the contrasting story of Jonathan Rebeck (Joseph Kolinski), a living resident of the cemetery, and Gertrude Klapper (Evalyn Baron), a widow still recovering from her husband's death some 14 months earlier. The two need each other, but Rebeck's debilitating fear of losing his ability to speak with the dead traps him in the cemetery, with only the departed and a foul-mouthed raven (Gabriel Barre, also the show's director) to keep him company.
But while Haagensen's book and lyrics develop the Michael-Laura relationship with great care and creativity, from their initial appearances apart to their eventual coming together, Rebeck and Klapper's story feels underdeveloped. Ideally, the two stories should support each other, with each couple teaching the other how to survive in their unique existences.
Here, Michael and Laura become little more than frustrated matchmakers with clouded personal histories (was he murdered, or did he commit suicide?), whose own romance intensifies almost incidentally. Until, that is, a turn of fate forces Rebeck to make a choice about his own life that will finally propel all their stories forward.
This means that certain stretches are glacially paced (at two hours and 15 minutes, the show feels at least half an hour too long), with too many songs that leave you cold. Isen's music is always beautiful, at times even magically rapturous, and surging with restful romanticism. But Haagensen's lyrics prove highly prosaic counterparts, too often outlining tiny moments that might better be served by 10 seconds of dialogue than by a three-minute song.
The words and music coalesce most fully in Michael and Laura's "Because of Them All," when they finally admit their feelings for each other. Klapper's "No One Ever Knows" is also heartfelt, and the emotional peak of Baron's otherwise affected, distant performance, but is too conversational to serve as the cathartic moment it's intended to be. Kolinski sings his music robustly, but never connects enough with Rebeck to effectively portray the desperate outcast who finds death livelier than life.
As for Barre, he's a one-note hoot as the Raven, and his staging varies from the beautiful (the ghost-human interactions) to the pedestrian (almost everything else), with James Morgan's curtain-heavy set (based on the Woodlawn Cemetery) alternately attractive and distracting.
Both Allen and Noll could polish their line readings, but make powerful impressions in their songs, which outline lives incompletely lived and a desire for second chances in ways the numbers for Rebeck and Klapper never do. Allen is particularly effective repudiating death in "I'm Not Going Gently" and "As Long As I Can," while Noll stuns with the aching and sumptuous "Close Your Eyes," about putting pain behind you and moving on.
One imagines that song has special resonance for Haagensen and Isen, who've been involved with A Fine and Private Place on and off for some 20 years. Haagensen says in a program note that he considers this the definitive version of the show; he may wish to rethink that, as what's onstage at the York appears to be a show with worlds of potential that is not yet ready to be laid to rest.
A Fine And Private Place