Martin Croft, the star of the Australian musical Joe Starts Again, seems to be plagued by an Aussie curse. Like fellow Australian Hugh Jackman of The Boy From Oz fame, Croft is a major talent trapped in a decidedly minor show. Such a judgment is perhaps all the more difficult to deliver considering that Croft himself is the show's lyricist and co-author (along with Mark Fletcher) of what is a disappointing musical about finding love at middle age.
As an actor, though, Croft brings earnest appeal and heartfelt warmth to the role of Joe Thompson, a 49 year-old gay man who is entering the dating scene after having lost his lover of eight years. The conceit of a middle-aged gay man (when was the last time that demographic made it to the stage?) dealing with the trials of dating in the modern age should surely be the source of good-natured "fish out of water" amusement. Croft and Fletcher, however, have settled for sweetness and sympathy over humor, as if they could not stand to poke fun at Joe's potentially comical situation. The result is a monochromatic show that is "pleasant" in the blandest sense of the word, and which as a piece of musical theatre is neither particularly exciting nor entertaining.
The show's book and lyrics cover the standard issues and emotions one might expect from a middle-aged dater: loneliness, insecurity, and a desire for acceptance. Little happens in the show that is unexpected and even when surprises do arise, they are handled with little novelty. At one moment, for example, Joe receives a response to his video personal ad from an individual named "Ashley." Through a misunderstanding of both parties, Joe doesn't realize that Ashley is actually a woman and she doesn't know that Joe is gay. Such a comedy of errors is underplayed by Croft and Fletcher who fail to instill such a moment with any sort of levity or humor.
It doesn't help that the score by Dean Lotherington (who is also the show's musical director) is lackluster and undistinguished, providing songs (or "songlets," as they seem more like themes than fleshed out works) that all sound the same. What can one say about a show whose biggest showstopper is a number hideously and embarrassingly entitled "I Shave My Balls"? The only other song that barely registers is the show's eleven o' clock number "A Private Love," which falls forty-five minutes into the hour-long play. Even that number, in which Joe sings about his closeted eight-year relationship with his now deceased lover, is ultimately a generic ballad perfect for the song stylings of Linda Eder or Barbra Streisand. Craft does his best to "sell" the song, but he can't hide the fact that its expression of regret and loss ultimately sounds rather clichéd. Craft's lyrics are functional and serviceable, but hardly witty, complete with the sort of rhymes that one often figures out before the performer reaches the end of a phrase.
Undoubtedly, some audiences will see the ready similarities between this show and Andrew Lloyd Webber's one-woman song cycle Tell Me On a Sunday, which follows a young woman's up and downs through multiple dysfunctional romantic relationships. Lloyd Webber, though, in one of his better scores, provided audiences with rich, varied, and memorable songs that captured the idiosyncrasies of dating life in the U.S. from speed dating to unfaithful lovers.
Like Tell Me On a Sunday, Croft and Fletcher's show musicalizes written letters, e-mail correspondences, and phone calls in an effort to chart Joe's romantic journey. Unlike Lloyd Webber's show, though, Joe Starts Again, due to its lack of musical diversity and discrete songs, seems more tedious. The show's opening section, for example, is a monotonous drawn-out sequence in which Joe makes a video of himself for a video-dating service, an activity that as staged by Cameron Wenn is a little difficult to make sense of. Wenn's direction does little to enliven the show's proceedings, making the piece feel pensive and even somber at times when it needs to be more lighthearted. Indeed, for a show billed as a comedy, there was rarely a chuckle out of the audience.
At one point in the show, Joe is told by the video-dating agency that his video is too boring and will not attract replies. Sadly, the agency is on to something. Joe Starts Again is a dull show that despite Croft's eager performance seems destined for the "single" life - one without an audience.
New York Musical Theatre Festival