Risks exist to be taken and, sadly, experiments exist to fail as often as they succeed. While Project Footlight: Wrong Number is a wonderfully risky entry in this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival, its daring intentions and lofty ambitions aren't enough to help it overcome the problems inherent in the very premises that make it so intriguing.
First, a note on the inside cover of the program informs us that "Eight weeks ago, no part of Wrong Number existed." The show, a collaboration between the comedy/improv titans of The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and rising-star musical writers Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk, has been developed, written, and thrown onstage in near-record time. Second, it's a choose-your-own-adventure musical, on a scale greater than the most famous example of the pseudo-genre, The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Every major decision in this show (and a minor one or two) is democratically voted on by the audience.
While it's not entirely obvious to what extent improvisation factors into the show in performance, the lack of a detailed, polished libretto as a foundation for the intended lunacy is a clear detriment to the proceedings. The book is credited to Kerrigan, and in selected moments in the scenes between votes, you hear the playwright's voice straining to break through the restrictions and establish depth and character that don't come easily in this format. Even basic pacing is a concern; many scenes have a ponderous, lethargic feel that's bereft of the energy a show like this needs to really work.
Given many of the performances onstage, one is tempted not to blame Kerrigan: Granted, Todd Alan Johnson, Brittany Pixton, and Brandon Wardell, whose program bios burst with theatre credits, do create compelling characters, even with only a handful of lines each. But Joe Wengert, in the lead role of Johnny Einstein, can summon up only a dispassionate monotone for his lines, and suggests no understanding of, or relationship to, a man who gets caught up in a kidnapping plot because of his phone number. (That Wengert can barely carry a tune is strangely incidental.) Ernie Privetera does labored work as a dim-witted kidnapper and a dim-witted cop, Eliza Skinner is only occasionally convincing as his partner in crime, and Rebekka Johnson is amusing if one-note as the kidnap victim.
More specifics of the story won't and can't be revealed here; with eight opportunities per performance for audience voting, the same show will probably never be performed twice at NYMF. But one suspects that certain scenes creep into every version, and that the overall theme - the volatile, often paralyzing nature of life in the years immediately following college - is also likely consistent from night to night.
That undercurrent of professional and romantic angst is territory that Lowdermilk and Kerrigan can cover better than anyone. They rocked last year's NYMF with their volcanic The Woman Upstairs, but can't make the same impression under these circumstances. They're serious writers who require time and breathing room to completely develop their songs; without it, as here, the results - if impressive given the constraints under which they were written - are skeletal. With the exceptions of "Wake Up," a high-octane anti-tribute to young adulthood with an infectious melody from composer-musical director Lowdermilk (working in his hardest-rocking mode), and a profanity-laced rap for Wengert (which he makes into the highlight of his performance), the team's compositions are little more than minor, one-joke songs and underscoring that don't demonstrate the full extent of their considerable talents. The UCBT improv gurus, equally out of their element, are likewise prevented from attaining their usual comic heights.
So it's not surprising that the show's most potentially moving moment has little impact: After a number of jokey, meaningless votes pass before the audience, one eventually involves a truly life-or-death matter. This highlights the comparatively irreverent irrelevance of your previous decisions, and reminds you that even the most insignificant choices can lead you to a situation that will have a lasting impact on the world and the people you love. It's a devastating thought, but one that withers all too quickly in this environment - there's nowhere in this cluttered show for it to fully blossom.
New York Musical Theatre Festival