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About Face

Heaven in Your Pocket

Part of The New York Musical Theatre Festival

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

About Face

Even when you think he’s already tapped out, William Shakespeare can still inspire some impressive musicals. About Face, with book and lyrics by David Arthur and music by Jeffrey Lodin, resets the Bard’s Much Ado About Nothing at the morals-concerned Whittney College in 1955 with results that soar toward musical-comedy heaven, even if they never quite arrive.

The always-quibbling Beatrice (Stanton) and (Bill) Benedick are here warring faculty members, she a humanities professor and he the football coach. The young lovers are students: aspiring actress Vicki Stanton (Beatrice’s niece) and football star-turned-musical-star Claude Matthews, with Maggie MacCauley as Vicki’s roommate and the woman who unwittingly comes between them. Mae Francis, the meddling drama professor, completes the picture.

Arthur’s surprisingly faithful update preserves all the crucial characters and most significant plot points, but so effectively translates them to their new milieu that it’s rare any inaccuracy or infelicity sticks out. Still more sparkle is provided by director Nick Corley and choreographer Mary MacLeod, who capture in the staging and fairly regular dance steps the (usually) carefree joys of courtship in both youth and middle age.

The performances are, by and large, excellent, with Mark Zimmerman ideally cast as the brusque Bill ready to melt as soon as Beatrice does. Aubrey Sinn makes Vicki beautiful and simple, but never stupid, while Nick Mannix’s Claude evinces just the right combination of jealous braggadocio and romantic cluelessness. Pamela Myers is a free-spirited trip as the always-in-tune Mae, and Rebecca Weiner unpeels a nearly perfect second banana as Maggie. Barbara Walsh, however, strikes too heavy an arch, epigrammatic note as Beatrice, making her more of a low-rent Dorothy Parker than is really ideal.

The score is largely delightful, evoking the hustle and bustle of campus life, competitive sports, and bubbling feelings with addictive, radio play-worthy tunes. Two numbers, the introductory “The World of Whittney” and the rehearsal-footsy quodlibet comprising “You, That’s Who” and “Ooh, What You’re Doin’ To Me,” are even injected with hilarious one-liner lyrics that yank you into the anything-can-happen world of Whittney.

But the songs, and the rest of the show, deflate completely in the second act, just when they become most important. True, Much Ado About Nothing’s final third is not its tightest. But things dissolve during the production of the annual Whittney musical (some piece of proto-Oklahoma! piffle called The Pennsylvania Maiden) that unites and divides its characters as appropriate; it’s vital to the plot, but shabbily written, and a speed bump from which the rest of the show can never recover.

Even the final numbers, which tie up the story’s various pairings, are distractingly weak, as though they were interpolated from another show altogether. Whatever it was or is, it pales in comparison to About Face at its best: When Arthur and Lodin can get everything to the same high level, the chances are excellent they will be the focus of much ado about very much indeed.

Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival




Heaven in Your Pocket

In the musical theatre, safety might breed financial success, but it usually precludes the artistic kind. The country-western musical Heaven in Your Pocket, with book, music, and lyrics by the late Mark Houston and book additions by Francis J. Cullinan and Dianne Sposito, takes fewer chances than should be possible for any musical not based on a recent film. It never offends, but it never excites; it’s not bad, at least in the traditional sense of the word, but also contains nothing good. It’s hard to imagine a honky-tonk musical with less honk.

Heaven in Your Pocket is, at heart, a parent-child story, with Arlene Davis (Rebecca Spencer) coming to understand and respect her daughter Kay Lee (Pheonix Vaughn) when the two of them try to revive the defunct Starlight Lounge Arlene’s husband left behind when he died. Kay Lee believes the two of them could have become Judd-like singing sensations in Nashville, but Arlene learned long ago to shun easy dreams. So with the help of their third singing partner, Arlene’s friend Mary Celeste (Lisa Asher) and handywoman Grace Helen Baker (Claire Slemmer), they set about taking the hard-road to self-made success.

A couple of men materialize from Kay Lee’s past: an aspiring interior designer named Billy Baxter (Mark Shock), and an honest-to-goodness cowboy love interest in Sam August (Chuck Saculla). But it’s really all about the ladies: how they learn to work with and love each other, or not, and what their ambitions are worth when money is on the line.

Spencer’s portrayal is fueled by a legitimate Western spark and a rough-edged attitude that lend firm authenticity to her claims to have grown up the hard way; Asher is also a fine, subtle comic actress who can smartly sell even the least subtle of jokes. But you feel from them, from the underseasoned Vaughn, and even from director Alan Souza a sense of resigned futility, as if they - like the characters - really just want to make the most out of the situation in which they’re involved.

With so little to work with, it’s not easy. The book lacks a single original twist. The songs are all generic beer-boilers, aping aching ballads and rave-ups while never connecting to the pain that typifies (and sometimes stereotypes) Country as a musical genre. It’s a show so inherently “good enough,” it’s not at all surprising it’s taken nearly 20 years to get from Oklahoma City to New York. (It’s been seen, sans Cullinan and Sposito’s revisions, plenty of other places under the title Changin’ Lanes.)

For the interested, Houston was also responsible for the bizarrely necrotic revue Six Women With Brain Death, which was seen at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (also in the 45th Street Theatre) in 2005. Intractable though that show was, it made a virtue of its individuality in a way that’s foreign to the blandly well-meaning Heaven in Your Pocket.

Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival