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The Joys Of Sex

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Not every show can be Urinetown; heck, not every show can be Matt and Ben. A hit at the New York International Fringe Festival won't necessarily be a hit in a commercial run, and we've probably only scratched the surface of Fringe shows trying to make it big, either on Broadway or Off-Broadway.

The latest entry is The Joys of Sex, which met with some success at the 2002 Fringe Festival. The title - probably a fair contributor to its popularity - is both true and misleading: Practically every song and scene in this 90-minute musical deals with sex in one way or another, but the show almost never approaches the dirty, the titillating, or even the attractive. The show just wants to be a goofy, slightly kinky musical comedy, a good time with no one getting hurt.

At that, it succeeds on only the most basic of levels. This is a paper-thin show that would need a fair amount of work to be frivolous, and the lack of almost all sophistication or class in its writing is unlikely to appeal to particularly discriminating audiences. The lyrics by Melissa Levis and book by Levis and David Weinstein (also the show's composer), with additional dialogue by Beth Saulnier, are often grimace-inducing, though they're occasionally legitimately funny. Even so, the show's amateurish, let's-put-on-a-show quality never really works in its favor.

There's a nominal story, about a married couple trying to have a baby and two young singles trying to find love, but that story exists only to make the show more a musical than a revue, and it only barely ties the show's seventeen songs together. (No one pretends that the eighteenth, the title song, has anything to do with the story.) But, overall, there's really nothing substantive or insightful here - "Sex is easy, it's love that's hard" is about as deep as The Joys of Sex gets.

As for the songs, they cover pretty predictable ground, with titles like "Intercourse on the Internet" (with music by Neil Ginsberg), "The First Time," "One Night Stand," "Twins," and "I Need It Bad." Those never evolve much beyond their titles, but even the more creative numbers ("'O' No," about a woman unable to experience an orgasm, or "In the Parlor Be a Lady," about differences in behavior inside and outside the bedroom) are mostly one-note jokes stretched too thin. The other numbers range from the obligatory (the leather-and-whips number "The Vault") to the generic (a ballad called "Fantasy Come True").

But if the songs aren't great, Weinstein's music often is. Even the most unimaginative songs can be musically seductive, ranging in style from Vegas act to pop rock and even mock-sitcom-theme (for "Not Too Nice," about a character who, of course, is). Weinstein handles them all adeptly, and his orchestrations (for "The Throbbing Threesome" band, led by Steven Ray Watkins) are also quite good. His vocal arrangements are actually excellent, some of the best I've heard in ages; who would expect run-of-the-mill doo-wop-style backup singing in an otherwise forgettable number like "The First Time" to sound truly magical? Weinstein's a real talent to watch.

The cast is also helpful, with significant talents in Ron Bohmer and Stephanie Kurtzuba (as the married couple) and David Josefsberg (as a well-meaning single loser). Jenelle Lynn Randall, as Josefsberg's counterpart, has a terrific high belt, but little other vocal distinction, and she can't make much of her ill-formed character. But Kurtzuba, Bohmer, and Josefsberg never squander any of their opportunities to shine, and frequently glow much more brightly than the material they perform.

Jeremy Dobrish's direction is lithe and clever, bringing an appropriate air of tacky, unpredictable fun. Lisa Shriver's choreography mostly looks a couple of decades out of date, but succeeds at injecting additional energy into the proceedings. Neil Patel's scenic design, rendered primarily in pinks and reds, relies perhaps a bit too heavily on nightclub glitz, but never offends; Donald Holder's lights are fine; and David C. Woolard has devised a few witty (and over-the-top) costumes.

There are times that The Joys of Sex seems undersized for its surroundings, something not easy to do at the Variety Arts. Perhaps a still-smaller theater or cabaret space would be a more ideal venue? It's hard to say, but chances are The Joys of Sex wouldn't play appreciably better anywhere else. Weinstein, however, is a talent deserving of being heard, even if his music here is surrounded by the theatrical equivalent of a bad one-night stand.

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The Joys Of Sex
Variety Arts Theatre, 110 Third Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge