Just because you experience success doesn't mean you still don't have a lot of learning to do. That's the message inadvertently communicated by the curious The Tutor, the new musical that Prospect Theater Company is presenting at 59E59 Theater B.
In this case, the success in question is the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award, which was won three times by The Tutor's authors, Maryrose Wood (book and lyrics) and Andrew Gerle (music). One can't easily discount that achievement, though one also can't reconcile the multiple honors with what's actually onstage. The logical assumption is that the award was based on the work's promise, which might have seemed extraordinary on the page, but in execution has gone markedly unfulfilled.
Not that the initial idea was a surefire one: What could a spoiled rich kid named Sweetie (Meredith Bull) and her smarmy SAT tutor Edmund (Eric Ankrim) find to sing about, individually or together? A comedy song about completely filling in circles on the answer sheet? A buck-up number about the guaranteed 200 points you get for writing your name? A passionate 11 o'clock number about the countless opportunities a higher education offers?
Wood and Gerle wisely avoid such banalities, but they haven't filled the resulting void with anything that reflects well on their basic premise. Edmund is an aspiring author who tutors to pay his bills until he can finish his novel (likely to be many years, as he rewrites it from scratch every time he runs into a snag), and discovers that the unmotivated Sweetie is his muse: She represents emotion unfettered by the intellectual concerns he's incapable of avoiding, and he grows to need her. She, in turn, grows to feel for the man whose passion she unlocks.
Things don't work out, of course - don't musicals always need spats just before their first-act curtains? What musicals need even more are characters we care about and songs that allow us to relate to those characters. This show starts generically: "A Very Special Girl" for Sweetie's parents, and "Stupid Rich Kids" for Edmund, neither song distinguished despite Gerle's appealing orchestrations or Ray Fellman's musical direction. Not long after, Edmund sings "Me Artist, You Rich" to her, sounding nothing at all like someone trying to prove his intellectual superiority.
These numbers, though, are at least in the dramatic ballpark, as is the soulful duet Edmund and Sweetie share, "Blank," about the empty pages each faces in his or her life. Others don't justify themselves so easily: Should Sweetie's father be saddled with a lengthy (and embarrassing) number called "Little Choo Choo," detailing an elaborate train metaphor for erectile dysfunction? And if the show's central focus is a young woman's relationship with her SAT tutor, should a militant vegan ever show up - ever - and sing a song called "Don't Eat Your Friends," about exactly what its title suggests?
Working in the production's favor is director Sarah Gurfield, who provides some crisp, declarative staging that makes as much sense as is imaginable of this material. Nick Francone's set, artfully strewn with sheets of discarded paper and featuring a number of cartoon pencils painted on the stage, adds some much-needed scenic whimsy. And the performers are all capable, though only Scott and Pruitt work in search of the tangible feelings everyone else seems to think will just sort of occur, but never do.
That's because, like a poorly formed answer to an essay question, The Tutor lacks an identifiable thesis; the authors need to clarify their intentions about many things. For example: Is the show supposed to be realistic or fanciful in style? Different characters currently suggest different things. Are we supposed to take Edmund's unfinished novel seriously? Having actors (Raphael Fetta and Lucy Sorenson) depict his main characters, and not allowing them to grow or develop as Edmund's novel does (or rather should), doesn't help.
Most importantly: What is the nature of Edmund and Sweetie's relationship, and why should we care? He's smug and devoted to his out-of-state girlfriend; she has a boyfriend of her own, and is more than a little callous herself. Yet we see little of the development of their relationship, so their allegiances and infatuations seem to change indiscriminately. So does Edmund's intellect: The entire second act hinges on his accidentally giving Sweetie something he's not dumb enough to have had with him in the first place.
Clarification of these and similar points might well reveal The Tutor to be worthy of the awards it's already received. But full credit can't rightfully be given to the show or its authors while so many questions remain unanswered.