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City of Dreams

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

City of Dreams is one of the most perfect recent examples of a chamber musical. It's sweeping in scope, but small in scale, and has big intentions and big ideas trapped within the confines of a theater too small for it, but that might be lost in a larger house. It's a musical full of contradictions, but is an entertaining and intricate achievement nonetheless.

The city of the title refers to Vienna, specifically Vienna of the late 1880s, and if you think you can predict most of the music just from knowing the setting, you're more or less correct. Joseph Zellnik's music is generally infused with lilting Viennese and waltz flavor, though strains of more modern influences (Sondheim, and perhaps Claude-Michel Schonberg) occasionally seep through. David Zellnik's lyrics are less distinct, but the two provide more than their fair share of tuneful, memorable songs. Intimate duets, brash character numbers, and more detailed plot numbers flow freely.

More creatively still is director Michael Alltop's staging. One of the production's two pianos is given a place of great prominence, and nearly all the action happens around it. The deft Alison Fraser, for example, begins and ends the show on the piano bench, while an endless variety of patterns of people arranged around the instrument throughout the show. When combined with Randall E. Klein's elegant costumes, the effect is one of a concert recital, though its appropriateness to the score and the story cannot be denied.

The story focuses primarily on two characters, Crown Prince Rudolf (Ben Nordstrom) and his forbidden love, Mary (Megan McGinnis), a common girl who threatens to tear the royal family apart. Rudolf's confrontations with his father (D. Michael Berkowitz), wife (Sharron Bower), and the other people of Vienna are beautifully orchestrated in both music and staging to create a near continuous movement of visual and dramatic elements. David Zellnik's book moves swiftly and efficiently, and if it struggles a bit with its method of including Sigmund Freud (Stephen Bel Davies) and Gustav Klimt (Paul Anthony Stewart), it accomplishes much of what it sets out to do.

It's during the second act that City of Dreams falters. After taking great pains to establish the forbidden relationship in the first act, the second act wraps up events rather quickly, taking too much focus off the central couple a bit too often. When Freud sings a song called "A Father and Son" only moments before the plot's major dramatic resolution and five musical numbers are still to come, something is slightly off-kilter.

But fortunately only slightly. With the exception of Nordstrom, who seems a bit unsure in his role and reads a hair too modern, the cast is up to the task and fulfills their roles, vocally and dramatically, quite well. The musical numbers, whether they are of the larger choral variety, or smaller affairs of two or three people, come across beautifully in the intimate theater at Raw Space.

While Alltop's staging would play much better on a larger stage - and the show deserves the chance to do just that - the emotional pull of the music and performers might get too easily lost in a bigger house. Otherwise, City of Dreams fills out the theater at Raw Space nicely, inviting audiences into its cozy world for a rather unusual musical adventure. It's an invitation you won't regret accepting.

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City of Dreams
As part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival
Raw Space, 555 West 42nd Street
Through August 4
Running Time: Approximately 115 minutes with one intermission
Schedule and Tickets: Ticket Central (212) 279-4200