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Martha & Me: A Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Perfection, if never achievable, is forever to be strived for, whether in a home or in a musical. Certainly, the Fringe Festival production of Martha & Me isn't perfect, but like any given Thanksgiving dinner, what's there and in abundant supply is well worth savoring even if what's missing would help make it an ideal meal.

For the show, what's there are a handful of good songs (by Robert Rokicki), the foundation of a fine book (by Sunny Dahlia Turner), strong direction (by Adam Levi), appropriate design elements (Olenka Denysenko designed the set, Sarah Greene the costumes, and Scott Earley the lights), eight excellent supporting actors bringing believable life to some quirky roles, and one truly glimmering star performance. There's even topical subject matter; the Martha of the title is domestic diva Martha Stewart, who faced criminal indictment last year and was convicted and sentenced earlier this year.

The exact nature of her legal problems is never relevant to Martha & Me, nor does Stewart appear as a character. What matters is the effect she has on people and the way they live their lives, though it's difficult at first to tell if the effect on Betsey Parsait (Jennifer Allen) has been positive or negative. She runs her life according to Stewart's strict guidelines, which has taken quite a toll on her family and friends, and this only intensifies as they all gather at her house for Thanksgiving dinner.

As the stresses of Thanksgiving begin, Betsey's obsession - and the way she deals with (or rather doesn't deal with) her problems - begins to haunt her: She's having marital difficulties with her husband John (Edward Prostak), she can't appropriately listen to her conflicted older son Jack (Ryland Shelton), or even see - until it's too late - that Peter and Jenny Harrison (Eric Millegan and Kimberly Mahon), invited for dinner to spare them a traumatic holiday with their divorcing parents, are causing the fragile Parsait family to crack apart at the seams.

There are a lot of conflicting and overlapping stories here, yet Turner tangles and separates them in masterful, surprising, and often humorous ways, though she's also capable of finding real depth in the characters' interactions. (The Betsey-Jack relationship is particularly strong.) Unfortunately, juggling nine characters sometimes taxes Turner a bit, and a few of her creations - particularly Uncle Joe (Larry Swansen) and Missy and Tom Stevens (Bobbi Owens and Ernest Williams, Jr.), bickering friends of John's - have comparatively little to do.

At least Rokicki's given everyone plenty to sing. His songs recall an eclectic mix of William Finn and Jerry Herman, intelligently composed, dramatic or funny as necessary, and strongly integrated into Turner's book. (The musical director and arranger is Caren Cole.) If he doesn't succeed at defining every character musically, when he hits, he scores a bull's-eye: The exquisitely operatic first act finale, and the song he's written for the otherwise minor Missy, an hilarious paean to the man she can't stand, but can't stand to be without, are both brilliant creations. (The latter is a modern riff on "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," but stands solidly on its own.)

The performances all gleam with professionalism, with Shelton and Nick Gabriel (playing Jack's brother, Benny) stand outs in their roles, bringing youthfulness and endearing confusion to two young men at major turning points in their lives. Millegan and Mahon are also an absolute hoot as the battling Harrisons, Mahon scoring one of the comic coups of the year when her Julie repeatedly accuses Peter of turning everything he touches gay.

But Allen drives the show with her commanding performance; she's meticulously concocted a character as you're likely to find in a Broadway musical today. Simultaneously looking like she just stepped out of The Stepford Wives and seeming like the woman next door, Allen turns an ever-so-slight turn of a can of cranberry sauce into a showstopping comic event, and signals a complete psychological breakdown with nothing more than a quavering cheek. And her knockout voice is equally as suited to delivering a quasi-religious hymn to her idol as it is to raising the rafters with a "Rose's Turn"-style 11-o'clock number.

It's only during this number that the show overcomes its most significant problem: a lack of size. Though dealing with deceptively serious themes (self-acceptance, coping with a painful loss, facing the world as it really is), there's never another moment Martha & Me doesn't feel perilously small, with things never seeming as important to us as they do to the show's characters. Turner and Rokicki just haven't found an effective way to make this musical sitcom into a true musical comedy.

But tightening up the book and score are real possibilities, and even if the show's ideal shape hasn't been found, everyone's on the right track. If Martha & Me doesn't feel quite ready for Broadway or even a commercial run, it at least has all the potential makings of a very, very good thing.

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International Fringe Festival
Martha & Me: A Musical
Through August 29
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission
Linhart Theatre at 440 Studios, 440 Lafayette Street, 3rd floor
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4488