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Once Around The Sun

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

As a musical, Once Around the Sun is a terrific rock concert. From the moment lights come up on the members of a garage band called B-SIDE, playing and singing a soulful rock ballad called "It's All Music" for all they're worth, you can't help but feel that one of those rare, legitimate meldings of theatre and rock music has at last come around again.

Then the dialogue starts.

Despite the heartfelt and at times heartbreaking songs from Robert Morris, Steven Morris, and Joe Shane, the book Kellie Overbey has written to tie them together is polluted with the kind of hoary show-biz banalities that have been old hat on the stage, page, and screen for decades. There's little more spirit-crushing at a musical than to be sent flying by the music and wrenched back to a cruel, unforgiving Earth whenever someone speaks a line instead of singing it. No one currently onstage at the Zipper utters an original thought or sentiment not backed by music.

"You can hide behind me or you can hide behind somebody else, but eventually the only thing that's gonna save you is the music," one character says at a point Overbey arbitrarily declares to be important. "You have a real opportunity right here! A real-life, grown-up opportunity to own a business and start a family," sounds a similarly pseudo-climactic plaint in another scene. At their best, lines like these and many others in this declamation of the music industry recall a very special episode of Saved by the Bell.

There's just not much to add to the Burgeoning Star Breaks From Restrictive Bandmates But Eventually Learns What's Really Important genre. Despite a bevy of talented performers that includes Asa Somers (Kevin, B-SIDE's leader), Caren Lyn Manuel (Skye, Kevin's longtime girlfriend and backup singer), Maya Days (the declining diva who incites Kevin to go out on his own), and John Hickok (Kevin's lounge-lizard uncle, who gave up his own career to build a life for his nephew); despite smoothly efficient direction from Jace Alexander that ingeniously intertwines fantasy sequences with grim reality; and despite an effective, concert-themed physical production (most notably including Jason Lyon's kinetic and strangely emotional lighting), the lack of even a vaguely new spin on this story prevents anything from catching fire.

There are a few laughs here, but they mostly come from the applause-mining performances of Kevin Mambo as a stereotypically talentless American Idol winner whose ascending career contrasts with Kevin's, and Jesse Lenant as a ridiculously overwrought Latin-wannabe music mogul. (Mambo and Lenant, along with Wes Little, constitute the other members of B-SIDE.) Whenever they're camping up things onstage, it's possible to ignore the dialogue's essential triteness.

But what can't be ignored are the songs. If they're not destined to be either musical theatre or pop classics, they demonstrate a sly sophistication and appreciation of style that makes them as appealing and appropriate for their surroundings as are numbers in shows like Rent and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Many of the numbers here even recall those from Hedwig, and to a lesser degree The Who's Tommy, in their volume (the sound design is by T. Richard Fitzgerald and Carl Casella), their plaintive use of melody, and the open-handed earnestness with which they're performed.

Do they advance the plot? No; there's barely a plot to advance. Still, "It's All Music," "You're My Lullaby," the title tune (an unexpectedly electric first-act finale paying tribute to Kevin's formative rock icons), and Days's dynamic 11 o'clocker "Love and Live On" jolt you to alertness and hold you there; Hickok's loungey, regretful "Fool Like Me" is a fitting pastiche of the pop standards of a generation past; and "Something Sentimental," the song that rockets Kevin to fame, is thoroughly believable as a crossover hit and as hummable as great show tunes should be.

Of course, true show tunes interlock with and amplify their surrounding book scenes, allowing a deeper understanding of the characters singing them. That can't happen here, despite the superb cast: Somers is all opportunistic, steely determination; Manuel is a font of aching desperation; and Days is an erupting volcano of energy and sky-shattering vocals that won't be contained. But the performers can't bring life to their sketchy characters, even when the music steps in to lend some much-needed humanity and grace to the proceedings.

Even an inelegant finale, in which the cast members all gather onstage (for no apparent reason) to sing the alternative-rock "Just Another Year," can't dampen the mood the music generates at its best; all the show's songs convey an urgent need to live, love, and express oneself, and that comes through despite the endless clichés of Overbey's book. The librettist is even right about one thing: the only thing that's gonna save them is the music. It and the cast are all that save Once Around the Sun.

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Once Around The Sun
Through September 18
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, 15 minutes with one 10-minute intermission
Zipper Theatre, 336 West 37th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge