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The Eyes Are the First Thing to Go

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If brothers Jim and Bob Walton are to be believed, growing old gracefully isn't just difficult - it's impossible. Or at least that's what their show at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, The Eyes Are the First Thing to Go, seems to be saying. Or, to put it a different way, life may begin at 40, but it's not the life you're expecting.

If you're not yet ready for those challenges, look at this show as a good-natured warning of things to come. If you're past it, use it as an opportunity to laugh off what you've already gone through. If you're going through it now, well, it might hit a little too close to home. The Waltons, both proud parents, pull few punches in their dissection of the concerns and joys of midlife, and so infuse their amiable energy and quirky sense of humor in the writing that, even though they don't appear onstage (both are, however, experienced and gifted performers), you feel as if you hear their voice whenever a word is spoken or sung.

This gives the revue, which runs just under two hours, a consistency that makes the time fly by, even when the material is far from the best it could be; that's the case more often than might be absolutely ideal. In trying to cover the range of midlife topics, the Waltons hit on a few clunkers, among them "Weekend Warriors," about recreational basketball; "Late Night Chat," touching on after-hours Internet usage; and "Ah, Youth!," a reconfiguration of sorts of "I Remember It Well." Songs like these creak more than they soar, and tend to bog down an evening that should be briskly paced and almost non-stop fun.

When those observations are on target, they're positively brimming with comedic acuity. The Waltons brilliantly capture the discomfort and outright terror of two men preparing for a prostate examination, cleverly scope out schadenfreude for women dealing with their vacated lovers in "He Got What He Deserves," and depict a very funny - if familiar - scene about the inability of men and women to effectively communicate their true feelings to each other.

They delve into serious material rarely, and with mixed success: "Come Play Catch With Me," in particular, is well-intentioned but forced as a father's declaration of love for his son. The other attempts are better, though the first - "The Long Goodbye," about three children dealing with their slowly aging parents - is sabotaged somewhat by a strange comic lead-in, though the song's main sentiment is quite moving. Even more affecting is the subsequent "Am I Anyone Now?," a beautiful, heartfelt song about a woman searching for meaning in life without a husband or children in the house.

That song is given an aching, passionate rendition by Pamela Myers, and is the evening's single finest moment. But while Beth Leavel does some particularly memorable work, milking her numerous comic opportunities (particularly the raucous and violent "My Biological Clock") for all they're worth, the entire cast is strong. Tim Cross, David Hibbard, Joseph Kolinski, and Laurie Walton (Bob Walton's wife) complete the tight ensemble; everyone's singing and dancing (the fine choreography is by Peggy Hickey) is top-notch, and they've all been cannily directed by Mark Waldrop.

It probably goes without saying, but this is a show likely to be most enjoyed by people at or past the midlife stage. While much of the comedy is universal, the loudest and longest guffaws at the performance I attended came from those who could all too easily relate to the increasing wisdom, decreasing faculties, and identity crises that the Waltons chronicle here.

But that it's more than sufficient entertainment even if you're too young to fully appreciate all the nuances is a testament to the Waltons' talents and the stellar cast assembled to sing their songs, tell their jokes, and relate their lessons about life. The Eyes Are the First Thing to Go is an often winning (if uneven) reminder that, like wine, musical theatre performers - whether working onstage or behind the scenes - only seem to get better with age.

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New York Musical Theatre Festival
The Eyes Are the First Thing to Go
Through October 3
The 45th Street Theatre - Primary Stages, 354 West 45th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101