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He's Not Himself

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

He's Not Himself
Taylor Sorice, Dexter Thomas-Payne, Carly Voigt, Marc Silverberg, and Keith Panzarella.
Photo by Dan Wilburn

What is there to say about a new musical that borrows so heavily from an ancient one that just watching it unfold is enough to trigger body-wracking déjà vu? I'm going to choose four simple words: "Isn't it a pity?" After all, they're what came to my mind time and time again, for several different reasons, during the New York Musical Theatre Festival production of Marc Silverberg's He's Not Himself, playing through Monday at the PTC Performance Space.

To be clear, I have no inherent problem with current writers looking to long-past masters for inspiration. More musicals might benefit from that approach, as it would force their authors to stick to the universe of the stage and its myriad wonders, rather than threaten to fly off into the film and TV realm every other minute. And Silverberg, who is a credible melodist and a shaky lyricist in his own right, is unquestionably at home in this idiom: What he's created, and what Michael Pantone has fluidly directed for him, is a rambunctious romp that would only ever have a prayer of holding together in the theatre.

But shouldn't professional deference, if nothing else, compel a writer who so drastically benefits from others' work to at least acknowledge his inspiration? Upon scouring the program (including a lengthy "From the Author" note), I could find no reference whatsoever to the show on which it's so obviously based that to not recognize it is like not noticing you've been hit smack on the head: Pardon My English.

In fairness, it's by no means the best known of the works for which George and Ira Gershwin provided songs, and perilously few (if anyone) alive today witnessed the Herbert Fields–Morrie Ryskind book in any sort of tangible form, even if they were alive and attending the theatre during the show's month-long 1933 Broadway run. But it was resuscitated, to dazzling effect and with a revamped libretto by David Ives, at Encores! just eight years ago, and its score was recorded not that long ago.

So it's strange to see just how much Silverberg has appropriated without credit — almost the entire plot, for starters. The story centers on Gene Bauer (Keith Panzarella), who flips between two personalities, a milquetoast meter maid and soft-boiled 1940s gangster, whenever he gets conked on the noggin (which happens with alarming, and unconvincing, frequency). As for his love lives, he's torn between the security guard Kay (Taylor Sorice) he's loved not-so-secretly for years and nightclub singer Bonnie James (Carly Voigt), who's in cahoots with her big-time thief brother Benny (Silverberg). And they're all being chased by a wise-mouthed detective, Tom Vito (Dexter Thomas-Payne), who has his own designs on Bonnie, and isn't above using his police knowledge to pursue her or stop the James's planned diamond heist by smacking Gene into the opposite identity at every opportunity. Character names and lyrics from the originals also make consistent cameo echoes, and Silverberg has even plucked two song titles: "Luckiest Man in the World" and the one he also used to title the evening.

What Silverberg should have sampled more readily is the prevailing spirit. Ives's script had a strong satirical bent, focusing on European tensions in the pre–World War II era (when the hero there got his cranium cracked, he became German), but was ultimately a serving of serious adult silliness. The immaturity coursing throughout He's Not Himself so undercuts the unbelievable premise that the show never finds its footing in the first place. Gene fixates on an Al Capone–oriented nighttime toy that even gives his alter ego his moniker (so help me, Teddy the Bear), Kay bears the brunt of her potential paramour's eye-rolling double entendres that even most high schoolers would dismiss as too transparent, and Vito spouts almost nothing but dopey, Dashiell Hammett–lite malapropisms that prevent him from providing a real threat to anyone.

The songs are musically appealing, bearing the appropriate Noir-smoke gilt, but the too-lackadaisical lyrics only occasionally rhyme, and rarely convey more than surface-level feelings. The closest to a success is "Luckiest Man in the World," which isn't a patch on the Gershwins', but heartfelt and passively haunting in its own right. The performances are rather less magnetic, with Panzarella game but unable to draw sufficient distinction between the two halves of his character that would really ground the action; everyone else goes too big, too often, which grates quickly. What really redeems things is Pantone's electric staging, which keeps three wall pieces (designed with understated finesse by Laurie Gamache) rotating and rolling about the stage to create a series of old-fashioned-looking locales that provide a pleasing, contemporary solution to old-school staging challenges.

But Pantone's fine work can't compensate for the style and surprise absent from the writing. You can only watch one man incur a devastating concussion so many times before it gets old, unless each new bonk radically ratchets up the dramatic stakes. That's why Pardon My English worked; Silverberg hasn't quite learned the same lesson, so all his homages can't make He's Not Himself feel like itself. In time, and with more rigorous attention to how to propel his narrative, it might. But as for this incarnation at NYMF, you don't quite got to be there.


2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival
He's Not Himself
Through July 16
PTC Performance Space , 555 West 42nd Street
Tickets and current performance schedule at www.nymf.org