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How Deep Is the Ocean?
Arnie the Doughnut

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

How Deep Is the Ocean?

How many songs about chlorine does any musical need? Whatever the number, it's safe to say that How Deep Is the Ocean?, playing at the Theatre at St. Clement's through Saturday as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, surpasses it by several order of magnitude. It's mildly understandable from the standpoint that, in a musical about water purification, characters need to sing about something. But that merely raises the question of why anyone would write a musical about water purification.

After surviving this tedious show by bookwriter Pia Cincotti and her songwriter brother Peter, I still can't answer that one. Okay, there might be some latent dramatic value in its story about a schlubby middle-aged man named Rob (Eric Leviton) who discovers that his lifelong love affair with chlorine is less important to him than his relationship with his wife, Jackie (Michelle Federer). But given that their relationship is poorly developed (on the rare occasions it is at all), and every line of dialogue is crusted with an impenetrable winking veneer and for the most part the score isn't better, even that explanation doesn't satisfy.

Rob's inherent unlikability — he drones on as endlessly about Corona and tuna as he does pool cleaners, and may have actually killed his mother as part of a chemical experiment — and Leviton's greasy, quasi–homeless man performance stifle most of what charms the show may have. Overly slick direction (by Jeremy Dobrish and Gina Rattan) and choreography (by Wendy Seyb) don't do much more to bring you in. The only times you feel legitimately involved are during a few lovely ballads that suggest the feelings of the characters aren't always confined to the shallow end: "If She Were Mine," "Nothing Changed," and "Say Yes."

These are all sung by Aaron Ramey, who's playing Andy, Rob's rival for both Jackie and a lucrative gig cleaning up the shore at the Monmouth Beach resort. Someone must have forgotten to tell Ramey he's in an aggressively abrasive "musical comedy" (complete with quotation marks), because he approaches his character through straightforward emotional honesty and an effortless tenor voice that lead you siding with him no matter how repellant Andy's actions, and the effect is arresting.

Ramey would be the sole bright spot in this waterlogged affair were it not for a truly shocking celebrity cameo (no quotation marks here!) in the second act. I won't spoil it further, except to say that it's a delightful injection of old-fashioned unpredictable show-biz into a mocking, new-fangled evening you'd think would have no use for such things. The moment show-stoppingly demonstrates that, no matter how far the art form progresses, the old ways usually always make sterling sense. If only anything else in How Deep Is the Ocean? did.

2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival
How Deep Is the Ocean?
Through July 21
The Theater at St. Clements , 423 W. 46th Street
Tickets and current performance schedule at www.nymf.org


Arnie the Doughnut

It may be a cop-out to describe Arnie the Doughnut as sweet — after all, what else would you expect from a show about a walking-and-talking, singing-and-dancing pastry? But that's just what Frances Limoncelli (book) and George Howe (music and lyrics) have delivered with this NYMF musical, running through Saturday at the PTC Performance space. It would be nice to also report that the show is nutritious, dramatically engaging, or even particularly original, but face it: Doughnuts encourage empty calorie consumption wherever they go.

Laurie Keller's cute children's book series directly inspired this tale about the titular baked good (Tom Deckman), who convinces the mild, set-in-his-ways man who buys him at the bakery, Mr. Bing (Thomas Poarch), to not eat him. This sets off a chain of events that leads both man and doughnut to examine their lives and ponder whether gentleman and gluten can actually become and stay best pals. (I don't want to spoil the ending for you or your kids, but, well, you can probably guess it.)

Howe has provided some attractive little songs, particularly for the close-harmony-singing bake-shop trio of Arnie's cruller, powdered-sugar, and jelly-filled cohorts (played with panache by Jane Blass, Jennifer Wren, and Stephanie Fittro), and Arnie's excitable plea for his life ("More than Just Delicious") is catchy as well. But even running only 75 minutes the show feels long, with director-choreographer Adam Arian presiding over too many labored scenes (especially in the last third) and time-killer songs that don't advance the central story. (Do the baker and the jelly doughnut really need a late-show duet, for example?)

If the former is perhaps a little too uptight and the latter definitely too broad (even by the necessarily relaxed standards of kids' theatre), they make a fun, friendly pairing; and Blass does some nice doubling as Mr. Bing's starchy neighbor. Special mention should also me made of Elizabeth Wislar's costumes, which especially for the confections really do look almost good enough to eat.

Audiences might not mind, however, a little more substantial show to sink their teeth into — another draft or two, better focusing on the central relationship, would seem a good idea to roll it into proper TheatreworksUSA shape. But if all you want is a simple chocolate-covered, sprinkle-kissed romp for the family, Arnie the Doughnut hits the spot.

2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival
Arnie the Doughnut
Through July 21
PTC Performance Space , 555 West 42nd Street
Tickets and current performance schedule at www.nymf.org