9th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival
Was anyone dying to learn the fates of the great-grandchildren of the characters from Jules Verne’s classic novel Around the World in Eighty Days? Anyone? I thought not. So what drew Mary Stewart-David to fold those characters into her hot air-filled musical Eighty-1, which is premiering at this year’s Midtown International Theatre Festival, is anyone’s guess. And what possessed her to devise no better story for those 21st-century youngsters than to recreate their forebears’ excursion is more puzzling still.
Yet there they are: Phileas Fogg (Daniel Lincoln), JP Passepartout (Brayden Hade), and the pretty American reporter “Fixey” Fix (Nicole Weiss), bumbling across the globe and trying to win a high-stakes bet that will clear Fogg’s grandfather’s now-besmirched good name. They even run into yet another imperiled Indian princess, named Aleysha (Jen Anaya), who’s just perfect for driving a wedge between the dashing Phileas and the perpetual second-banana Passepartout.
They all might as well have stayed home. Stewart-David, who also directs, and her composer Clive Chang, take advantage of none of the Earth’s colorful diversity or myriad scintillating musical stylings in either the book or score, settling instead for a generic update of Verne that reads and sings as if it belongs (and came from) nowhere. There’s an attractive contrapuntal kick-off for the journey in the tuneful and unpredictable “Around the World”; and “Stamps,” in which Fogg explains to Fix why philately always trumps philandering, is the closest the show gets to mock-Sondheim inspiration. But JP’s generic-melodic whine “How He Gets the Girl,” his head-scratching “Romance for Beginners” with Fix, and Aleysha’s flavorless ballad “Out on the Ice” are much more representative of a score and show more interested in borrowing from other voices than in developing its own.
The same is true of the performers, who are mostly an amiable, well-sung, and charisma-crippled lot. The only identifiable traces of individuality come from David Albiero and John Anthony Lopez, who play the teeming ensemble as though they’re among the grandest star tracks ever devised. Their bottomless wells of accents and attitudes fix the times, places, and meanings of scenes far better than anything else. Together, they keep the show spiritually closer to its 90-minute length than to the 80 days it too often feels like.
Run Time: 90 minutes
Sooner or later, all people learn they can’t go home again. A play like Cherry Hill, which Matt Okin wrote and directed, is enough to make you never want to step across the threshold of your birthplace - and quite possibly a theater - ever again.
This rusty-kitchen-sink coming-of-age drama follows 23-year-old Bernie Morton as he returns to his Maryland hometown of Cherry Hill sometime in 1990 to discover life isn’t exactly as he left it. Oh, he still has his minimum-wage job at the local movie theater. But that’s it: After Bernie’s parents’ separation, his dad has become an insatiable sex fiend; Bernie’s best friend, Judd Thomasino, is still recovering from his father’s death, but is having surprisingly little trouble connecting with his mother or his girlfriend Deirdre; and Mol, Bernie’s childhood crush, has literally begun whoring herself, while Deirdre harbors a few forbidden romantic secrets of her own.
The short version: Everyone - and I’m not exaggerating - sleeps with everyone else, no one is happy, and yet Bernie still manages to extract positive life lessons from the conflagration of pain. Huh? The agony is so rampant, so overdirected, and so overacted that Okin’s attempt at a transitional John Hughes-style teen drama never even touches touching, and becomes numbing after about five minutes. David Thornton wears out his welcome in half that time, making Bernie such an adenoidal approximation of Matthew Broderick on Thorazine that you want to sedate him rather than sympathize.
The rest of the cast is no better, ranging from merely cringeworthy (Noah DeBiase as Judd) to the impenetrable (Vanessa Altshuler’s Mol is a soulless, one-dimensional slut) to the ear-bleedingly hysterical (Lauren Gamble, as Judd’s mother). The exception is Tim Decker, who in addition to providing electronic guitar accompaniment during scene changes also plays the tiny but crucial role of Berk Givens. Narratively, he centers the play’s sloppy depiction of the transient nature of love at the threshold of adulthood, but he’s more notable for uttering fewer than five words the whole evening. This provides a few blessed moments of silence in Cherry Hill, which otherwise prefers saying every hand-wringing thing on its mind to saying just what matters most.
Run Time: 90 minutes with no intermission