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Dr. Sex

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If flaccidity were a crime, the new musical Dr. Sex would have been buried long before it opened at Peter Norton Space last night. But even prolonged previews and a departed director couldn't wipe this show's toothy grin from its robotically smiling face; this is one musical that looks like it's having the time of its life while feeling like it's somewhere between dead on its feet and dead on arrival.

If the prognosis is grim for this less-than-arousing look at the career of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, it's not all the fault of authors Larry Bortniker (book and score) and Sally Deering (book); some of it's just timing. With last year's film Kinsey, which starred Liam Neeson as the famous (or infamous) sex researcher and Laura Linney as his wife Clara, still fresh in many people's minds, this might seem like overkill. And, if you think a musical-comedy telling of Kinsey's tale will probably be strained and cloying... well, you're right.

One can easily understand why Bortniker and Deering would be attracted to a figure as controversial as Kinsey, and why they'd feel it desirable - if not outright necessary - to leaven his serious scientific story with traditional musical comedy writing. And Bortniker certainly has the talent to pull it off: He reveals himself here to have considerable melodic gifts, and the ability to fashion enough old-fashioned, hummable show tunes to pack an entire score to the bursting point.

And therein lies the problem. Dr. Sex is hopelessly, haplessly locked in the early 20th century, so much so that the production team - headed by choreographer Mark Esposito and "production supervisor" Greg Hirsch (there's no longer a director credited in the Playbill) - have turned this into an almost-concept musical that vacillates between Ziegfeld variety show and second-rate vaudeville. This translates into the score as, among other things, a school fight song, an comic-operetta love duet for Kinsey (Brian Noonan) and Clara (Jennifer Simard) set in a bog, in-one numbers, and so on.

But the subject matter cries out for a more elegant, original treatment, even if the only result is more elegant comedy. There's something unsettling, for example, about Kinsey's confusion over his own sexual orientation being played entirely for laughs, particularly as he drools over his handsome lab assistant Wally (Christopher Corts), who eventually moves in with the Kinseys and sleeps with them both. And a lengthy scene set in a forest in which Kinsey, Wally, and three other men find inventive new ways to hide their genitals from the audience would have been old hat 60 years ago.

The only thing that seems even marginally contemporary or exciting is Simard. One of Off-Broadway's best musical-comedy actresses (most recently seen ripping up the stage in Forbidden Broadway: SVU), she enlivens her every scene here. Her real triumph is "The Doctor's Wife," a tour-de-force vamp in which she laments her status as outsider in her own marriage by invoking everyone from Mae West to Vivian Blaine, but she's great throughout, her satiric operatic trills and gutsy, earthy belting (frequently within one song) unlocking laughs where few, if any, were likely expected.

Noonan's reedy portrayal, a toxic mixture of Phil Silvers and Ryan Stiles, grows annoying after five minutes, and this is a two-hour show. Corts plays things relatively straight, but his approximation of a real human being looks out of place next to stratospherically funny Simard and the mercilessly mugging Noonan. The other cast members are all limited to chorus work, and are fine singers and dancers who deserve better opportunities to stop the show than, say, the number set in a vaguely Egyptian-themed bondage parlor that's the nadir of the show and a terrible way to end the first act.

The curtain-and-staircase set (Rob Bissinger), mock-sexy costumes (John Carver Sullivan), and lights (Richard Winkler) all mesh with the show's style, but generally look cheap; the band, though, led by Alan Bukowiecki, sounds great, and nicely evokes a vaudeville pit group. The orchestrations (Larry Hochman, David Siegel, Ned Ginsburg), dance arrangements (Sam Davis), and vocal arrangements ("musical supervisor" Patrick Vaccariello) also sound like they were borrowed from a better show.

But neither they nor Simard can ever completely energize things; a musical filled with jokes about not making jokes about sex has problems no crack comic actress or blaring brass can fix. A family musical about sex is an interesting idea, but as done here, everything pales next to Cole Porter's classic reference to Bortniker and Deering's subject: "According to the Kinsey Report every average man you know / Much prefers to play his favorite sport when the temperature is low." In comparison, everything in Dr. Sex is just too darn cold.

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Dr. Sex
Through October 30
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission
Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street between 10th & 11th Avenues
PLEASE NOTE: DR. SEX IS NOT A PRODUCTION OF SIGNATURE THEATRE COMPANY.
Tickets online: TicketCentral