Great performers can make good shows of middling material, but their powers will often be defeated by a script or score that's not up to snuff. Of today's male musical theatre stars, Darius de Haas is among the best: young, wiry, likable, and vocally more pliable than warm Silly Putty. Alas, his numerous talents don't include a knack for making a rambling 90-minute solo show into a landmark event.
But the piece he's trying - and failing - to elevate at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, The Man in My Head, is probably beyond anyone's ability. After all, great theatre seldom evolves from soap opera.
The average soap opera episode, though, has the benefit of being only 60 minutes in length, including commercial breaks. The Man in My Head, which is playing at the 45th Street Theatre, runs 90 minutes, as unfair an endurance test for the audience as for de Haas. Playing (and differentiating between) four major characters and a handful of subsidiary extras isn't easy under the best of circumstances, but when they must bicker, bitch, and complain their way through a convoluted love story while cataloging a full array of black archetypes, it's a bit much for any one man to handle.
Thomas F. Defrantz (book) and Michael Wartofsky (music and lyrics) have pulled out so many stops in charting the life and loves of Drew Durango that you shouldn't be surprised if you find yourself wanting to push some back in. That would be the ideal way to make something watchable of this collection of songs and scenes that de Haas - for all his talent - never convinces you will add up to more than a stream-of-consciousness diversion.
Paddling at the forefront is Drew Durango (yes, it's a pseudonym, and yes, he knows it sounds like a porn star's name), an aspiring lawyer who recently moved to New York and is sowing his wild oats while the sowing is good. (Among other problems, Drew hasn't yet come out to his family.) But while Drew's concerns are intricately etched, he moves through the show like a cipher, one that neither the supporting characters nor de Haas cast in a flattering light.
This is because Drew is always the least interesting person onstage. Jake, a high-powered attorney who can only meet with Drew on the "down low" (meaning, he's married to a woman), is a set of twisted mass contradictions de Haas obviously enjoys unraveling. Teddy, a flamboyant disco hound Drew meets in a happening club, offers de Haas a few choice opportunities to let himself go. Jamal, an ascetic basketball player Drew stumbles across in Harlem, allows de Haas to be more sensitive and spiritual than do his other roles.
Drew, however, offers few challenges for de Haas. The logic is presumably that Drew, by not accepting who he is and what he wants, is an empty vessel only definable by the men he meets. But de Haas plays no hint of the mystery, anticipation, or fulfillment that might draw us into Drew's struggles, leaving him an eternally blank slate with no chalk in sight. All de Haas presents is a generic, surface-level emotion somewhere between frustration and anger, which makes for a strident central figure.
Drew's songs, while always soulful and frequently speculative (the show's title and its associated song refer to the imaginary man of Drew's dreams), are too internalized to contribute to a more sympathetic personality to sand down Drew's sharper edges. Everyone else is better realized musically, with Jake assigned the bitter "Keep it Down," Teddy the unexpectedly jubilant "New Friend," Jamal the sensual "Your Body" (for when he and Drew consummate their relationship), and Jake's wife Serena the show's flashy, quasi-Dreamgirls moment, "That Sister."
That dramatic tour-de-force, about the destructive secret Jake keeps under wraps, is the only time The Man in My Head comes alive. Buoyed by de Haas's fiercely funny and electrically sung take on Serena, the show no longer seems the cluttered collage considering identity that the writers and director Schele Williams otherwise are determined to make it. The rest of the score, while intelligently composed, makes its points over and over in a droning musical language that should be shattered more often by the in-your-face qualities "That Sister" demonstrates.
De Haas sells the heck out of it, and could do with more chances to bring down the house. The 11-o'clock Jake-Teddy-Jamal-Drew quartet, "The Voice Inside," would seem an ideal opportunity for a one-man "Rose's Turn" to provide an energizing, theatrical resolution to Drew's social and psychological conundrums. That the song passes by unheralded and unnoticed is further proof that the best thing for The Man in My Head would be to get out of its own head.
The Man in My Head