Himself and Nora
If you're not turned off by the title Flambé Dreams, you just might enjoy the show it's attached to. Matthew Hardy and Randy Klein's entry at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, playing at the 45th Street Theatre through Tuesday, is definitely upfront about how it sees itself: as a jokey, eye-rolling riff on real musicals more than a notable new contribution to the canon. Assuming you don't mind that sort of thing, regardless of what (if anything) you thought of the 2004 Andrew Lloyd Webber–produced show that inspired that title, you can probably derive a couple of hours of fun from this cream puff–light offering.
But despite fervently behaving like it's about something deeper, Flambé Dreams has serious trouble, well, catching fire in that department. Its premise is that Idaho-born Joe Christiansen (Jarrod Spector) has grown up with no greater ambition than to be a maître d' at a fancy restaurant, and organize a parade of flaming desserts in honor of his father (who died heroically during such a display gone awry). But when he leaves behind his drug-dispensing psychiatrist mother Elaine (Catherine Cox) for the big city and its big eateries, Joe is not adequately prepared for the trouble he experiences controlling his OCD, let alone finding work, let alone finding the girl who will inspire his sweetest creations. The closest he comes is his Duane Reade pharmacist, Gloria (Jillian Louis), but when she vanishes one day, his dreams of her being his muse seem to go up in smoke.
There's no way this story could ever be weighty, regardless of how much lyricist-librettist Hardy insists Joe is tormented by his past and the mother who might not be telling him everything, but it could at least be earnestly told. As it is, it's mostly an excuse for running jokes about Bananas Foster and revue-like musical non-sequiturs about the likes of Julie Andrews, Internet dating, formal wear, and, in a mind-boggling nadir for the score (and for NYMF), inflatable women. Though Elaine is honestly felt, with songs detailing her stifling affection for Joe, the bulk of the score struggles visibly to highlight the quirkiness that surrounds Joe while maintaining its authority. The endlessly repeated, belty refrain of Gloria's "Mr. Christiansen," for example, is less endearing than annoying, and does any show really need a song like "Lesions On Your Heart" that likens romantic loss to herpes?
This isn't to say there aren't some pleasures to be found. Hardy's music is catchy regardless of which style it's aping, as it does pretty much everything from stoner-chic to opera. Director West Hyler has staged things with color and conviction, and he keeps the action moving even when it most wants to grind to a halt. And the performers are first-rate, with Cox especially moving as the desperate but loving Elaine and Louis a sympathetic vocal powerhouse in an otherwise shakily defined role. But Flambé Dreams's relentlessly glossy plasticity keeps even these finer elements from making the evening a true jubilee, whether with or without cherries.
2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival
Himself and Nora
James Joyce might be the go-to example of a classic Irish author, but you'd have a hard time judging that from the NYMF musical about him and his long-time muse-companion-wife Nora Barnacle, Himself and Nora. Jonathan Brielle's well-intentioned but trying show, playing at the Theatre at St. Clement's through next Thursday, captures nothing uniquely Irish about either of its subjects, and, worse, functions as neither a vibrant history lesson nor an absorbing character study. Various novels may get name-checked, but the title duo's worries about health, money, and the state of the world that surrounds them are so generalized that they could be any couple at any time in any place.
The most generic part of the paint-by-fading-numbers evening (which Michael Bush has directed with impressive indifference) is the score. Though the story takes us through an amazing span of history, from the pair's meeting in 1904 to James' death in 1941, most of the numbers are aimless and forgettable, saying more about the songwriter's difficulty getting inside his characters than they do about the personalities actually singing them. Their big seduction number is a bewildering, un-erotic bit called "Compatriots in Lust"; Nora has both a stand-by-your-man power ballad ("Stand Fast") and an I'm-through-standing-by-my-man rant ("Without a Man"); and aside from a number celebrating the publication of Ulysses, James is barely defined in music at all. "River Liffey" is a list song with nothing on its mind beyond rattling off countless Irish locales, and there is, naturally, a drinking song — because don't all Ireland-set musicals need one?
Two duets devoted to peripheral characters stand out the most, if for the wrong reasons: Ezra Pound and Harriet Weaver muck through a hideous burlesque about their affection for Ulysses, and Lucia and Giorgio Joyce waste a few minutes smarming about their useless parents. Brielle finds his footing in the last 10 minutes or so, when James is making his pained exit, with the lovely "What Better Thing to Do" and "Touch Kiss," but overall this is a show where you're never anxiously waiting for the next song to start. Then again, given that Brielle's creativity with the book extends little further than having a priest shadow James to constantly remind him of the Catholic oppression he so despises, the spoken scenes are not exactly electrifying either.
Jessica Burrows is appealingly saucy as Nora, and comes the closest to making a recognizable human being from the dramatic detritus around her. As James, Matt Bogart looks and sounds a bit silly trying to project caustic disaffection for over two hours, but he works tirelessly to properly mete out the acid. J.B. Wing, David Arthur, and Brian Sills do fine work as everyone else, but you tend to forget about their characters as soon as they depart the spotlight. As its title suggests, this is ultimately a show about two people, and you want the focus on them. Himself and Nora will be more likely to soar than bore once Brielle has discovered the best way to do that himself.
2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival