Does it matter if a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down when the medicine cures nothing? Sometimes yes, such as in the case of Have a Nice Life at Dodger Stages, the first entry to open in this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival. If the surroundings are simple snake oil, there's a tablet (or seven) of honest-to-God NoDoz at the center of it all.
As if a reminder to never discount the ability of fresh, exciting, musical talent to transport you places a book and score couldn't take you alone, Have a Nice Life boasts a cast that most Broadway musicals worth their ticket prices would die for: Three superb belter-comediennes in Emily Skinner, Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, and Nicole Ruth Snelson; a spirited, edgy ingénue in Michelle Blakely; and three men (Michael Berry, Kevin Carolan, and Charles Hagerty) who showstoppingly span the gamut from jerk to nerd to Neanderthal.
That they've all been assembled in a twittery, twitchy show that goes mining for meaning but ends up shamefully short is almost beside the point. Conor Mitchell (book, music, and lyrics) and Matthew Hurt (book) can't convince you with their words and tunes there's much worth in putting these seven sterling professionals through their paces in a near-revue story about (brace yourself) group therapy gone awry. But give any of the stars the spotlight, and they might as well be peddling Irving Berlin.
Take Skinner, for example, trapped in a role she could play in her sleep: Jean, the weekly group's bitchy, hard-edged control freak, whose loud temper and louder mouth has made her an enemy of everyone. But when newcomer Amy (Blakely) confesses how she unwittingly lured a man away from his wife, Skinner's rote mannerisms morph into an anguished, angry plaint of musical rage that not only peels the paint from the stage with its comedic acidity, but reveals the bruised heart of a woman who herself has been scorned.
Or how about Snelson? Her Barbara, forced into group by court order, is the ragged sexpot of the bunch, sporting fishnet stockings and off-the-shoulder everything. But just when you've come to accept her as the group's dimbulb killjoy, as likely to tease then stomp on the men as mock names and games of word association, she struts her way to center stage to sing of the illicit joys of "Hate Mail" in ways more compelling than the postal office would likely prefer. Her high kicks, higher notes, and seductive slithers all but prove revenge is truly a dish best served hot.
But these moments aren't staged (by Pip Pickering) or choreographed (by Rhonda Miller) in anything but obligatory, usually static ways. Nor do they take flight because of Mitchell's compositions, which pull some pages from Sondheim, some from William Finn, and some from Ralph Burns (Mitchell's brassy orchestrations are fabulous), but never result in a coherent musical narrative. The songs are alternately ruggedly emotional, steamy fun, or on occasion soaring, but are all of the functional, forgettable variety that typify the modern musical so solidly integrated it has no freedom to excite.
Yet real performers can liberate even the most constricted material, which these seven stars demonstrate time and time again. Hagerty sells the out-of-place, out-of-wit title song like Nicely-Nicely Johnson singing "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." Piro Donovan stops the show with an hilarious invasive song about her character's desperate need to need. The appealing Carolan leads a rickety movie-musical fantasy number that, amazingly, doesn't feel out of place within the show's overly clinical framework.
When the actors are doing their thing, it matters little that most of the therapy jokes and associated revelations are roughly 20 years out of date. Perhaps in the U.K., where Mitchell, Hurt, and Pickering hail from, therapy is a less pervasive subject for comedy than it is here. But barely a whiff of staleness escapes the stage, thanks to all the performers good enough to make it smell as delightful as a rose garden. Call it street hustling if you like; call it aromatherapy if you must. Whatever it is, it's just what the doctor ordered, even if Have a Nice Life itself is not.
Have A Nice Life