Enduring immortality is like serving a life sentence in Foreverman, Brett M. Boles's bewitching entry in the New York Musical Theatre Festival, which is playing through Saturday at the PTC Performance Space. Although there is a romance or two at the heart of the show, any specifics matter less to Boles than examining what the promise "I'll love you until the end of time" really means. And when he peels away the layers of florid filigree surrounding those words, the resulting analysis is not as sentimental as most swooning partners tend to hope.
Most of the considerable fun of Foreverman lies in watching how an ostensible blessing oozes throughout the characters' lives like a caustic plague, destroying everything with which it comes in contact. After two brilliant friends, Will Timeson (Omar Lopez-Cepero) and Jack Mercer (Adam Monley), develop and imbibe an immortality potion in 1676, and then divide the recipe so they can never again make it without the other's cooperation, eternity starts seeming like the wink of an eye. And as the secret gets out, they all start to wonder whether death might just be the best way to go. (One character's aggrieved moan upon learning that a cherished companion has become incapable of dying is particularly telling.)
Each of the characters must face the question in some way, but the fulcrum is Fiona Fairwright (Kelly McCormick), a sickly young woman from a family cursed to produce only male heirs. Both Will and Jack fall in love with her, and see her as their spiritual salvation — but how to pursue her when they'll outlive her by millennia without subjecting her to the same horrors, and how to win against a rival who can't be killed? Their rivalry extends some two centuries, into the 1800s, when a new generation of life lovers and leavers must address the mess the cowardly men have created, and determine how to cope with the chilling problems that face them all.
It's a complex and mature setup, but more than that it's a rich, robust story that gives people good reasons to sing their passions. There's nothing undersized or uncertain about their feelings or actions, which translates to any number of engaging moments that wouldn't cut as deeply without music. (Though it's worth pointing out that the book is detailed and twisty enough to satisfy on its own.) The score is uniformly strong (and played with start-to-finish verve by Natalie Tenenbaum's six-piece band), but highlights include the men's damning pact with each other, "Sons of Adam"; all the ballads defining the various aspects of Will and Fiona's relationship (the yearning "A Single Drop of Her," and the excited "I Will Take You" chief among them); and the duet for Will's governess Mrs. Morgan (Karen Elliott) and servant Hawkins (Larry Cahn) that highlights their own hot-cold partnership, "One Small Kiss."
If these numbers and others occasionally approach British pop opera in style and sweep, they never match that genre's bombast; dishonesty is rare among Boles's compositions. The same is true of the actors' performances, with Lopez-Cepero singing superbly and proving outstanding at projecting the excitement and anguish of discovery that gives Will everything he wants one moment and robs him of it all the next. McCormick's Fiona radiates warmth and is entirely believable as a woman being prodded and pulled by forces beyond her control, her crystal-clear belt communicating the brash innocence that makes her so appealing to two constantly warring men. Elliott, Cahn, and Glory Crampton, playing a Victorian mother with a few secrets of her own, are excellent as well. Only Monley displays some difficulty finding the proper balance within his character, settling for posing and glowering in a production where deeper acting is otherwise the norm.
Stephen Nachamie has provided a convincing staging, and the physical elements (John McDermott's set, Anne Liberman and Barry Doss's sumptuous costumes, Susan Nicholson's lights, and Mark Costello's heavily animated projections) are top-notch by NYMF standards. The evening's only real letdown is that Boles is not wholly successful maintaining tension throughout; in particular, the final few scenes suggest that he's not clear how to wrap up his tale, which is a weakness when the plot is the focus. And the flipping between the two time periods alternates between happening too often (in the first act) and not often enough (in the second act), verging on being confusing and spoiling the crucial conceit of the present and the past informing each other.
But these are ultimately minor issues. What's more important about this fast-moving two-and-a-half-hour outing is that it's structurally and conceptually sound enough to withstand such missteps. Its heart, its spine, and its brain are all in the right places, which is no small feat for a musical that strives to do so much in such an unapologetic way. Boles may not have created a perfect musical, but he has created a real one in need of just a bit more polish to truly soar. Will and Jack may not want to live forever, but if Boles gives his show the attention it needs, it will probably be worthy of running almost that long.
2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival