Two lines in the second act of People Like Us succinctly sum up this New York Musical Theatre Festival entry's cynically clear-eyed view of contemporary relationships: "Love is beautiful... and dangerous," and "I love you. / So?"
No, nothing comes easy to the on-again-off-again duo inhabiting the sentimental center of this oddly unromantic musical; no joy comes without pain, and misery can't exist without the possibility of hope. Happiness and despair exist in librettist-lyricist Gus Kaikkonen's world, much as they do in ours, in roughly equal measures, but aren't as easily quantified as most musicals - or we ourselves - might like to believe they can be.
The curious power of this show comes from this devotion to emotional reality, which proves its most impressive achievement and most lamentable failure. A give and take of this scale and complexity, on which both parties are on equally solid (and shaky) ground, is perhaps too difficult to sustain for over two hours; consequently, this show is simultaneously compelling and distancing. It feels so real that, after a while, it becomes hard to believe the lovers don't realize what we do early on: Their love likely won't endure.
But their resilience and hopefulness sustains them - and us - through the show's dramatic contrivances which, in other hands, might register as eye-rolling rather than soul-searing. When Pamela (Pamela Bob) and Matt (Matt Bogart) meet at the corner of West 4th and West 10th on New Year's Eve, the connection is immediate but troubling: They know each other. They were together when they were younger. Things ended badly. But now that she's a successful scientist and professor at NYU, and he's a big-time TV star, surely they can make another go of it?
People Like Us, though, is no fairy tale: Her work requires fundraisers and summer travels to Cyprus; his requires surrendering his anonymity and living either out of Los Angeles or out of a suitcase. The only way for them to make it is to compromise, but how much should each give up? And how much should each ask the other to give up? There are no straightforward answers.
Even Todd Almond's music provides no release. While the show in many ways recalls Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, opportunities for showstopping songs or jokes are almost nonexistent here. Even when the subject is a pleasant remembrance or a lightly humorous look at Matt and Pamela's disastrous dating lives, each note in every song drips with the solemn echo of unrequited love, leaving no positive thought unaffected by the nagging musical suspicion that a dark secret could spoil it at any moment. Kaikkonen's lyrics, while not poorly crafted, elucidate so many facets of every internal and external force operating on Pamela and Matt that during the longer, more obviously wrought passages, you want them to think less and feel more so that you, too, can be swept away in what they're singing about.
At the show's first performance Thursday night, only Bob successfully compensated; her work was so decorated with specific detail that she didn't seem to be acting as much as living out her life onstage. A combination of Jane Krakowski brittleness and humor and Sherie Rene Scott fortitude, Bob brought a perfect paralyzing confliction to Pamela, so that you never doubted her being caught between two irreconcilable worlds. When she sang the plaintive "Moon Over Nebraska" late in the show, her voice was steeled with finality; she had at last made her decision, but was so believable throughout as a professionally secure but emotionally untethered woman that you accepted the song as a new development instead of a recap of her past torments.
Bogart, however, displayed torment of a different kind: He went up on his lyrics in two key scenes, including his first. His shuffling discomfort with his lines makes a complete appraisal of his performance difficult; throughout the scenes in which he had a firmer grasp of the material, he seemed to coast on his matinee-idol looks and money notes (which sound less impressive without a microphone only inches from his mouth) instead of mining the deeper truths Bob was investigating. But once he's brushed up on his material, it's possible different colors might be discernible in his performance.
Fortunately, there are many colors to be found in the rest of the show, which coolly flourishes under Kaikkonen's direction, Almond's musical direction, and William Armstrong's sensitive lighting. These hues, while not always attractive, help make the show a vividly fascinating - if occasionally forlorn - tour of the bleak but beautiful landscape of the human heart.
New York Musical Theatre Festival