Is Australia really as innocent as it seems, or is all a perverse come-on for the benefit of us cynical Americans? When it comes to Australian musicals, it's hard to tell. If you like, dismiss the works of writers like Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank for being too na´ve, too treacly, too pat, but can any show that's not only those things but also grippingly honest and downright fun be so easily written off?
Virgins, Bryant and Frank's latest collaboration to hit these shores, being presented at The Barrow Group Theatre as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, might be tame for a theatrical climate that produces Avenue Q and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. But when it comes to the hearts and craft beneath the hood of this often-charming, triple-bill tuner, Bryant and Frank are up there with the best. And while they may be from Down Under, they never go over the top.
How that will register with New York audiences remains to be seen; Virgins - at least by our standards - is mighty old-fashioned stuff. Its stories - about hypersensual teenagers promoting adolescent abstinence, about a journalist discovering that pornographers are people too, and about an out-of-control reality TV show - won't set many American eyes popping. And there are more than a few moments when this well-intentioned musical seems in imminent danger of imploding under the weight of its own good graces.
Amazingly, Bryant (book, lyrics, and direction) and Frank (music) never let that happen. Whenever the writing threatens to become too cloyingly clever - especially in "Virgin Wars," the opening act about five chastity-championing cheerleaders - they inject enough spice to stifle any undue sweetness. Yet as they're also unwilling to shy away from their messages, there are enough down-to-earth moments to satisfy those who prefer musicals of the low-sugar variety.
The most haunting occur at the climaxes of the second and third acts, in compositions so good, you wish they weren't deeply buried in playlets working much harder than the frivolous curtain-raiser. Near the end of "The Girl on the Screen," reporter Lauren and the three Internet sex workers she's investigating, all sing the moving "Connect," about their surprisingly spiritual methods of relating to others. For the third and longest story, "Jumping the Q," four immigrants forced to compete American Idol-style for the privilege of entering Australia express in "I Raise My Voice" their hopes that freedom is more than just an empty word.
"Connect," especially, connects with the American musical theatre tradition of writers like Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown, bearing the former's musical complexity and the latter's purity of openhearted lyricism. Virgins never improves on that song's tune or its sentiment, despite the effervescently youthful relative-ribaldry of "Virgin Wars" and some accomplished pageant-tweaking numbers for the hopefuls in "Jumping the Q." Virgins, like so many shows, is at its best when it's at its most unadorned.
The cast, though, consisting of the roles' Australian originators, is sensational throughout. This terrific team-act is so well integrated, it would be unfair to single out specific performers, but Esther Hannaford, Rosemarie Harris, Verity Hunt-Ballard, Amanda Levy, and Kellie Rode are all singer-dancer-actresses of notable quality, who shift seamlessly from comic to serious scenes and buoy the show when it seems most in danger of sinking.
That's mostly during "Jumping the Q," which - running nearly the time of the other two shows combined - is not as tightly paced as the other pieces, and is neither as funny nor insightful as it is long. Only here do Bryant's direction and Natalie Marsland's choreography feel less spirited than superficial.
Superficiality, however, is not much present in the rest of the show, even when it's saying things most of us have heard for a long time. In that way, and in others, Virgins compares favorably with Altar Boyz, another respectful, spiritually themed musical of questionable innovation (but unquestionable entertainment value) that got its start at NYMF two years ago.
If Virgins doesn't possess quite that spark, it's yet another example of the real talent and meaningfully positive attitude Bryant and Frank should bring to the U.S. more frequently. Bryant might be correct in one of his lines that advises "Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder," but here's hoping we won't have to abstain from Bryant-Frank musicals for another four years.