A musical comedy with a rock/pop-influenced score, aimed at people in their 20s and 30s, using songs as honest expressions of situation and emotion? Recent major New York stage successes have assured us this is impossible, right?
Well, the impossible has finally happened.
Avenue Q and Urinetown, make way for Slut. This new show at the Fringe Festival by Stephen Sislen and Ben Winters is not only thrilled at being a musical, it assumes you're thrilled to be at a musical. There's not a single wink, parodic phrase, or tongue-in-cheek rejection of the form in sight; it's a straightforward musical comedy romance. And it's one of the freshest and funniest new shows to hit the boards in many a month.
Only the show's title suggests a possible pandering to an audience more interested in daring and edgy, which is a shame. Slut takes few chances and hardly advances the form, instead using what's already been established to the best of its ability. It's far from a show mired in filth and anger; it's just a fun, simple love story, albeit one with a wacky, modern spin.
That much is obvious from the show's first number, "I'm Probably Not Gonna Call." Confirmed womanizer Adam (Stephen Bienskie) wakes up next to a woman and rebuffs her pleasantries by expressing he has no desire to see her again. In fact, all of New York wants to get in on the action, as one-night stands give way to increasingly wacky explanations from one end of the city to the other. Playful, funny, and honest, it gets the show off to a rollicking start.
Yet, the song also creates dangerously high expectations, though Sislen (the composer) and Winters (the lyricist and book writer) set out to fulfill them with a manic glee. As stated, the story is somewhat familiar - Adam and his friend, Dan (Josh Tyson), constantly fight over the alluring rock musician Delia (Nicole Ruth Snelson) they meet in a bar - but it's handled so well in musical comedy terms that no song, joke, or appearance from Ferdinand Magellan seems incongruous.
When tackling barroom matchmaking ("The Code"), the give and take of long-term relationships ("True Love"), having to deliver some earth-shattering news ("The Thing Of It Is," brilliantly recalling "Therapy" from tick...tick...BOOM!), the writers' comic voices are thoroughly in check; when tackling more serious issues, like accepting once unwanted responsibilities ("If He Didn't Belong to Me"), they're sweet and moving.
Yes, Slut's the real deal, and it's given a fine small-scale mounting here. Mary Houston's set design is necessarily minimalistic but hits all the right marks, while Aaron J. Mason's lights and Heather Dunbar's costumes efficiently complete the picture. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli doesn't have a lot to do, but gives the cast some appropriately energetic mock-improvisatory dance steps. Musical directors Amy and David Southerland deserve kudos for their work and for leading a band of mostly electronic instruments that knows more volume isn't necessarily better. Director Sarah Gurfield reins all of these elements together and creates a tight, clever production. She could benefit from picking up the paces of the scene changes and keeping the actors in positions they might be able to be more easily heard, but her work is otherwise quite strong.
Bienskie is hilarious in his role, displaying a fine versatility and a natural flair for understated comedy. Tyson's transition from uptight bookworm to in-demand clubhopper is an enjoyable journey, and Snelson - as the woman who comes between them - has an appealing vulnerability and a dynamite voice when she really lets herself go. The ensemble - made up of Catherine Carpenter, Mary Faber, Victor Hawks, Jeff Hiller, Natalie Joy Johnson, and Michael Thomas Holmes - is very dedicated, hard-working, and comedically gifted, all of them standouts.
Slut has been in development since 2001, and there's more work Sislen and Winters could do before the show moves on to the next phase of its life (which it certainly deserves): The second act is a bit weak musically, and some of the characters could be fleshed out more. For now, the most serious problem is that tickets are likely to be precious commodities; with the exception of a recently-added performance on August 21, the show has sold out its Fringe run.
If you can't wait for Slut to show up at another venue, head to the Wings Theatre and hope for good luck or cancellations. And, who knows? You may get lucky. Stranger things have happened. Slut, a warm and truthful non-ironic contemporary musical comedy, is vibrant proof of that.
2003 New York International Fringe Festival