Tully (In No Particular Order)
Summer may be officially over, but any New Yorker knows that doesn’t mean the heat is necessarily gone for good. In the case of Like Love, playing as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, things are just now getting cranked up. The opening scene of this new musical by Barry Jay Kaplan (book and lyrics) and Lewis Flinn (music) is as steamy as it gets, and if things do cool off later, the show still makes for a hot 75 minutes.
An inversion of the traditional notion that people first fall in love and then have sex, Like Love centers on a man and a woman who hook up in a hotel room and then are challenged (or maybe cursed) with figuring out their feelings for each other. What starts as a strict deal for sex-only afternoons (including a deal-breaker rule against questions about such bothersome things as jobs, friends, or especially names) takes a darker turn as both He (Jon Patrick Walker) and She (Emily Swallow) become increasingly tangled in the no-strings partnering being overseen, not always helpfully, by Love herself (Danielle Ferland).
Like Love, which has been skillfully if sparely directed by Lisa Rothe, is at its best when focusing on the myriad ways men and women deceive each other, and themselves. He and She end their initial discussion by signing their agreement with a pulsing and funny chronology of how sex ebbs and flows in relationships; a four-way conversation at their ensuing relationship’s lowest point masterfully mines the differing break-up aesthetics of both genders, using an impressively small number of words. Only near the end, when He and She sift through their emotions with degenerative, heart-searching solos, does convention creep in and start assuming control, and not for the better.
But the score is for the most part a smoky delight. Drenched in jazz, blues, and whiskey, and played suavely on the piano by musical director Brad Simmons, the numbers find both the hard edges and soft centers of contemporary dating and mating without ever becoming syrupy. These highly cynical songs have the perfect sound for our cynical age, with even Love eschewing traditional ballads in favor of questioning melodies and lyrics seldom willing to promise more than that “Love is coming... soon.”
Ferland is a fine embodiment of her, both fiery and refined, with a playful streak that reminds - just a little - of her little-girl-lost stint as Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods 20 years ago. Walker and Swallow bring sophisticated sexiness to He and She, and have a bubbling chemistry together that generates all the right reactions in the mostly right Like Love. If Kaplan and Flinn give in to their romantic inclinations before anyone in this musical ménage a trois is fully ready, they’ve still come up with a sultry, spicy show that holds out longer, and runs hotter, than most.
Venue: TBG Theater, 312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tully (In No Particular Order)
I’ve never understood what compels writers to transform something famously salacious into a musical almost satirically safe. An aversion to controversy? The fear of turning off audiences of flimsier constitutions? Whatever the reason, it’s in full force in Tully (In No Particular Order), Joshua William Gelb and Stephanie Johstone’s intriguing but unsatisfying theatrical reimagining of the Ancient Roman poems of Catullus.
The poems, all of which were written well before year zero on the current calendar, count subjects as diverse as sex (with both genders), politics, scatology, and marble-cracking screeds, intermixed with less-colorful musings on Roman life. With recurring characters and consistent references to various battles and social and governmental struggles, the poems read even today as a compelling who’s who and what’s what of Rome near the end of its B.C. days. But for this musical, Johnstone (music and lyrics) and Gelb (book, additional lyrics, and direction) have condensed Catullus’s 100-odd pieces into a tired story about the author (here renamed Tully) and his complicated romance with the wife of a prominent senator and his own artistic frustrations.
Adam Hose is energetic and engaging in the title role, though he doesn’t bring a great deal of emotional depth to his portrayal. Kate Rockwell brings sexy verve and an impressive belt to the object of Tully’s affections, and Austin Miller finds the right sinewy smarm in her devious brother. (Both, for the record, were finalists in the Grease: You’re the One That I Want! reality TV show.) Autumn Hurlbert, David McGee, Evan Jay Newman, and Owen O’Malley all have their moments as supporting players in Tully’s story.
Though that story is completely coherent - despite what the show’s title might imply - it never convinces of its musical or dramatic worth. Told conventionally, in this case with the deceased Tully trying to reorganize the scattered pages of his life, a story about a young man struggling with his sexuality and unfortunate choices of bed partners is old hat in 2007, and not a fitting tribute to enduring writings that find anxious magic in the mundane.
Gelb and Johnstone efforts to make Catullus’s denuded works newly interesting are limited mainly to a musical and staging concept that places the show at the intersection of Reconstruction gentility, Old Hollywood glamour, and 1970s disco. This gives Tully (In No Particular Order) a sound and feel all its own - think Cabaret shoots heroin with Saturday Night Fever - but evokes neither the everyday extraordinariness of Ancient Rome or the creative spirit of a man who could capture anything in words except himself.
Venue: The Sage Theater, 711 Seventh Ave, 2nd Floor, between 47th and 48th Streets.