Once upon a time, musicals were innocent enough to believe that love made the world go 'round. Today, we expect stories just as viable from the dissolution of love and marriage. The great divorce musical, however, is yet to be written, and chances are that, when it comes down the pike, it won't look or sound much like Drift, the new show at the Sage Theatre. But this entry in the New York Musical Theatre Festival might well be seen as a vital stepping stone on the path to that one.
Drift makes so many mistakes and effects so many successes, one wishing to write the quintessential divorce musical must merely pick and choose from the elements Craig Pospisil (book) and Jeremy Schonfeld (music and lyrics) offer up. One might best begin with the basic premise: Unsuccessful musician David walks out on his wife Laura and their daughter, and finds the answers he needs to life's questions in men's group therapy. A crucial early decision for the author would be whether to focus the story on the marriage or on the men: an effective show could be written of either the foundering of one family or the formation of another.
Pospisil and Schonfeld never make that decision, and the resulting show reflects the absence of a concrete choice. While the marriage story would seem to inherently be the more important, it receives short shrift, with Laura depicted as a vague threat with few traits beyond the love for her daughter, and David as a songwriter as artistically unfulfilled as he is generic, his dreams and hopes never quantified in ways that will make him seem like a more than just an ordinary guy off the street.
The men of David's therapy group, on the other hand, receive lengthy monologues and songs that pinpoint for us the precise nature of their characters. The firmly closeted married man struggling with the loss of his child, the young go-getter who's in denial about the state of his separation, the sports-loving slob with an unpredictable temper... Each displays the personality and vividity of character that David and Laura lack. One senses it's about this band of brothers that the authors most wanted to write.
It's certainly better musicalized, with Schonfeld's exciting art-rock score (ornamented with country and pop) pulsingly defining these men adrift in an increasingly confusing emotional world. The outstanding bookending numbers ("Dr. Schneider," about the helpful head of the therapy sessions, and "The Toast," celebrating newfound friendship) and the title song are just right for these men who learn to find in each other the acceptance they're unable to get from their female better halves. Laura gets little more than a song detailing the chain of femininity through her mother down to her daughter, and a piercing power ballad with David ("State of the Heart") as their court-driven animosity reaches its conclusion.
That she otherwise remains at best an insubstantial presence is not the fault of actress Tari Kelly, a dynamic vocalist who infuses Laura with as much sympathy as possible. Christian Campbell is an underpowered David; he's got the doting father thing down pat, but is overly reactionary even by the standards of Pospisil's meandering, clichéd book. The men of the support group (Jarrod Emick, Dennis Holland, Joe Ricci, Ric Ryder, and Michael Turner) are beyond reproach, even if their roles would be scaled down or excised in nearly any other treatment of this material. Special mention should also be made of a spunky Karla Mosley as a temporary love interest for David, and an adorable Indy Tanner as David and Laura's daughter.
Good as the performers are, they can't mask the fact that Drift is two shows desperately in need of unification. Neither director Jeremy Dobrish nor choreographer Tricia Brouk provide it, their work generally looking more like an homage to Urban Cowboy than the realization of the rhythms already present in these people's lives.
As it stands, the show under their stewardship is much like David and Laura's marriage: disconnected. It's hard to tell at this point if all the differences are irreconcilable. But if there's not necessarily any reason the two disparate threads of Drift can't cohabitate, perhaps they would benefit from better mediation and some time apart?