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Genesius

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Genesius
Beth Glover and Danny Gardner.
Photo by Shannan Denlinger.

Hagiography doesn’t come much hokier than Genesius, the well-intentioned but out-of-its-depth musical biography of Jane Simmon Miller at the TADA! Theater. What, you’ve never heard of her? You know, she’s the woman who in 1971 founded the Genesius Theatre, the premiere proving ground for on-the-rise talents that masquerades as an amateur playhouse in Reading, Pennsylvania. Now does her name ring any bells?

Probably not. The biggest problem of the many afflicting this show, which has a book by L.J. Fecho and music and lyrics by Michael O’Flaherty (a co-founder of Genesius), is that it assumes you already know and care so much about Miller’s contributions you’ll be willing to overlook any infelicities in how her story is told. If you’re unwilling or unable to do that - as, one suspects, most in New York will be - you’re in trouble: Neither Fecho nor O’Flaherty provides much of a reason otherwise.

It seems safe to assume that within the confines of Berks County, Miller’s escape from Pennsylvania Dutch life could be seen as a major success story. And that her breaking free of the withering emotional clutches of a loveless marriage and thrusting all her spare energies into her work with budding child actors in the “two boards and a dream” world of Reading show business could be seen as a triumphant repudiation of antiquated ideals still held in fairly high regard. (The sketchiness of Fecho’s libretto, however, makes all of this supposition.) But such minor themes alone do not a compelling musical make, even if it’s about a woman who obviously worked real wonders within her limited sphere.

You do learn that Miller, whom Beth Glover plays as a rapidly tarnishing copper clone of Patti LuPone’s Norma Desmond, has a penchant for illicit sexual affairs, cigarettes, and gold lamé (often all at the same time). But even these details exist only to demonstrate how she rose above herself to provide life-changing direction to young societal misfits who never belonged anywhere else. And because she escorts some to paying careers, others to personal success, and in at least one case away from a life of crime, she’s spoken of in little but terms so glowing they make the recent Ted Kennedy tributes look like models of restraint.

Because every character is someone Miller either overcame or converted, it doesn’t take long for things to become hopelessly saccharine. The pianist, David (Danny Gardner, in a role ostensibly based on O’Flaherty), she seduces happily sacrifices his own musical career to devote himself to her and Genesius. The stuffy actor that helped establish her, Grant Cole (Paul Carlin), does everything he can to shut her down before turning on a dime and doing everything he can to help her succeed. The butch lesbian stagehand, Fred (Melisa Klausner), disapproves of Miller’s methods, but comes around once she sees the results and praises Miller’s inclusiveness. One of the kids, Luke (Dane Reis), is a juvenile delinquent Miller turns into one of the most valuable members of the company (the other 10, of course, have similarly difficult stories).

Too many attempts to tame this coma-inducing sweetness, with either vulgar vernacular or uncomfortably mature subplots (the first-act finale finds the theatre on the brink of closure following a marijuana scandal, and there’s a lot of talk about sex - not just between the adults), fail to sharpen this dramatic marshmallow, and keep it from being appropriate for the children who are obviously its target audience. The score isn’t much better - a few of O’Flaherty’s compositions acquire some low-rent majesty in their music (if not their trite, repetitive lyrics), capturing the surface-level sense of the cathartic uplift that musical theatre at its most honest can provide. But such occurrences are the exception, not the rule.

Most of the rest of what’s onstage isn’t appreciably better. Glover is game, but neither grand nor eccentric enough as the “larger-than-life” Miller; she bulges her eyes, flops her prop cigarette, and sweeps about more apologetically than charismatically. (The music also does not sit well on Glover’s voice; she recently starred in Grey Gardens in San Francisco, but here struggles through even the modest vocals.) David is supposedly so magnetic he could capture Miller within his irrepressible sexual allure, but the frothy and insubstantial Gardner radiates about as much erotic fire (and adenoidal aloofness) as Leo Bloom in The Producers. Carlin’s haughtiness is one-dimensional, but fine for a token villain; Reis, Ryan Mikita, Lannon Killea, and Lauren Lukacek come across as the best of the kids, even if none reads younger than about 23.

The direction and choreography by William Sanders resemble those of the community-theatre school that frequently must make too much out of not enough. If they can’t satisfy in any real way, they’re both very appropriate for Genesius, which is about a woman who inspired a troupe to build shows and lives on exactly that aesthetic. If you came to know, love, or do theatre in such an environment, the trials and tribulations of the underequipped stagestruck will undoubtedly inspire smiles of recognition and sympathy. But this show is too shaky to convince us that the theater has unceasingly created first-rate work for 38 years - its only identifiable goal beyond feting Miller. Rather than in New York, it belongs back on the Genesius stage, where it was first produced in 2007 and where it needn’t work quite so hard or fruitlessly to fulfill its greatest promise as both art and advertising.


Genesius
Through September 13
TADA! Theatre, 15 West 28th Street, 3rd floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix