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A Shining Love

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Good musicals are difficult to create under the best of circumstances, and musicals based on historical political events are harder still. What's the best way to make a plethora of names, dates, and events assimilable to audiences that might not be familiar with them? Finding the proper balance is tricky, and musical theater's most notable success - 1776 - is obviously the exception rather than the rule.

For an example of a show that gets almost everything wrong, you need look no further than A Shining Love, which just opened at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. It centers on the actions of now somewhat obscure figures in American history, assaults the audience with an almost nonstop barrage of facts in lieu of character development and genuine emotion, and features a series of mostly unmemorable songs delivered by a highly uneven cast.

At the very least, A Shining Love has its heart in the right place. The show details the remarkable life and career of John Fremont, an explorer, military man, politician, and outspoken opponent of slavery who gave up a great deal for his convictions. Among many other things, he made a fortune during the California gold rush, and became the Republican Party's first presidential candidate in 1856, but lost to James Buchanan, who then led the nation into the Civil War. After Fremont died in 1890, his devoted wife Jessie spent the rest of her life trying to set the record - and the history books - straight.

If there are possibilities for captivating drama in the Fremonts' lives, they generally seem to elude lyricist/librettist Greg Senf, composers Jeremy Rosen (also the musical director) and Richard Sussman, and director George Wolf Reily. When the writers aren't busy having their characters recount every bit of Fremont minutiae they could dig out of history books, they're having them sing songs with tenuous connections to the plot and even less dramatic viability. The numbers' titles - such as "Love at First Sight," "The Two of Us United," and "Love Keeps Shining On" - speak for themselves.

As for the cast, Jessie and John are played by Beth Chiarelli and lyricist/librettist Senf; they act as well as they can with what they have to work with, but their singing is frequently only adequate at best. Then again, when they're singing lyrics like "If it wasn't for that simple ugly fact / You can't endorse the slave bill or the Kansas-Nebraska Act," the quality of their voices doesn't seem to matter much. That their characters' public lives are given so much more attention than the romance they supposedly share is much more problematic.

Amanda-Adair brown and Kristen Hammer, both playing small character roles, and Kevin T Collins generally come across better, though they're given few real opportunities (and Collins's acting borders on the hysterical in the earlier scenes). The show's sixth cast member, John Abate, doesn't seem comfortable in any of his numerous small roles, and he seemed to forget a number of lines and lyrics at the opening night performance.

A few things in A Shining Love do work. Thomas M. Harlan's colorful costumes attractively succeed at delineating the show's many characters. Scott Joplin's "Augustin Club Waltz" and "Camptown Races" - albeit called "The Mustang Colt," and outfitted with new lyrics - are interpolated into the score, and provide some welcome breaths of fresh air. And, despite the score's other problems, the energetic anthem "Rise Up, Fremont!" works almost well enough to get your toes tapping.

Otherwise, this is one of those shows that's too busy being educational to be entertaining. There are certainly places for a show of this type - schools or certain theme parks come to mind. Still, chances are that most would want more interesting and engaging writing than A Shining Love can offer.

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Midtown International Theatre Festival
A Shining Love
Through July 31
Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission
WorkShop Theatre, Jewel Box Space, 4th Floor, 312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: SmartTix 212.868.4444