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A Time to be Born: a 1940's New York Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

New York, New York, it's a helluva town! Oh, you heard? So you're probably also familiar with the Big Apple's reputation as the city where one can shed the shackles of a small-town background and adopt a different, more exciting life. Intimate knowledge of these facts defuses the potential impact to be gained from A Time to Be Born, which, while it's playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre as part of the Fringe Festival, gives lie to the rumor that there are interesting people living on Christopher Street.

The sparklingly satirical figures of the same-titled 1942 Dawn Powell novel on which the musical is based have been replaced by rusty automatons cycling through their musical-comedy paces on low battery power. The gallons of feel-good pastiche with which authors Tajlei Levis (book and lyrics) and John Mercurio flood the story succeed at little more than waterlogging story and actors alike.

Levis and Mercurio do little more than ape 1940 styles, but never develop a feel for the speech, breaths, and heartbeats of the era, the rhythms that specifically root a story in a certain year. Their attempts to merge Powell's blistering critique of the 1940 social scene with the kind of busy-pockmarked-with-restful sounds of Leonard Bernstein's music for the quintessential 1940s New York musical, On the Town, don't have the inherent bite needed to succeed: Levis and Mercurio are working within barriers; Powell and Bernstein smashed them.

At any rate, that atmosphere is wrong for the typical, romantic musical A Time to Be Born longs to be. The musical's authors never recover from that mistake in telling the story of Vicky Haven (Christy Morton), who departs her Lakeville, Ohio home for the excitement of New York and finds that being true to herself - and the people around her - is more difficult than she imagined.

Vicky knows only fellow Lakeville escapee Amanda Evans (Maria Couch), a writer of dubious gifts now married to a powerful publishing magnate, and who sets Vicky up with a job and a glamorous Gramercy Park studio expressly for the purpose of conducting dalliances there during the day with reporter Ken Saunders (James Sasser). But Amanda doesn't count on Vicky's ascendance to the top of the publishing world, and meeting Ken - with whom she, too, falls hopelessly in love.

As the show progresses, Vicky must find the soul she eagerly sacrifices early on, Ken must find his long-ago abandoned artistic integrity, and the audience must find reasons to care about these people without the help of witty, insightful dialogue, or good songs. No amount of swing, jazz, blues, or big-band numbers (the score is packed with them) can disguise the complete absence of musical or emotional invention.

Vicky is introduced with a song that sounds and looks like Mel Brooks's "I Wanna Be a Producer"; Ken's smoldering, sputtering ballads could have been lifted from a first draft of City of Angels; "New York Woman" is a cut-rate Andrews Sisters knock-off. The acrid smoke these numbers and others generate is occasionally whisked away by Marlo Hunter's breezy staging and choreography, which keep things moving in fluid ways the book and songs can't. Typical of the authors' misfiring notions is the title song, which includes the lyric "We're quick to forget that in wars people die," a statement so knowing it completely obviates the need for the show to subsequently demonstrate this. (Sean Tribble's gorgeous and numerous costumes anchor the show in 1940 far more effectively than this sentiment.)

The performances are mostly obligatory, with the real shining visible in the tiniest roles: Alison Cimmet is a kick as Amanda's needling, hardworking assistant; and Richard Binder and Christopher Sloan, in glorified chorus parts as a perpetually plagiarized writer and Vicky's old flame respectively, display far too much personality to blend in with the surrounding masses. Morton's toothy Vicky and Maria Couch's blandly bitchy Amanda are equally unlikable, which wreaks havoc on the love triangle-powered plot.

On opening night, you could only root for Sasser, if for the wrong reasons. During a scene in which his usually stiff, stolid Ken was plastered to the point of acting on his feelings for Vicky, a streetlamp set piece tumbled to the stage. Sasser, not missing a beat, drunkenly mused, "It's had more than I have!", to the delight of the audience. This was the sole time the show's lacquered fašade cracked to reveal a flash of human humor beneath. Levis, Mercurio, and Hunter should not endeavor to recreate this moment nightly, but should try to harness its power for the rest of the show, which is sorely in need of this kind of edgy unpredictability and the good-natured fun that can result from it.


A Time to be Born: a 1940's New York Musical
Through August 27
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and Festival Performance Schedule: www.fringenyc.org