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Greenwood
and
Date of a Lifetime
part of
The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Greenwood

In the James Goldman–Stephen Sondheim musical Follies, which is currently being revived on Broadway, the cynical present is constantly bumping up against its own exuberant show-business past. That same idea is at the heart of Greenwood, Tor Hyams and Adam LeBow's musical playing at Peter Norton Space as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, but this show rewinds the clock differently: by looking at how a group of fortysomethings was affected by the final performance they all gave at their cherished performing arts summer camp, Greenwood, 25 years earlier. The result is a show that, much like the revue those hopeful youngsters once put on, pleases in spite of almost everything about it.

Foremost among its many issues is that neither the authors nor the director-choreographer, Paul Stancato, take many chances; they make Todd Graff look adventurous in comparison for his treatment of a similar topic in the 2003 indie film Camp. The cast of characters covers expectedly diverse territory: one of the kids is a womanizer, one is in the closet but coming ever closer to peeking out, one's been fired from an honest-to-goodness Broadway job, and two have developed deep feelings for each other but have yet developed the language to express them.

Because these two offer the most opportunities for specific emotional content, they're the most interesting to both the writers and to us. They're Zoe and Alex (Alicia Morton and Andrew Redlawsk), who had some sort of falling out the night of the Big Show and in the interim years have grown up (the adult versions are played by Mary Mossberg and Cary Shields) emotionally crippled by it. Alex, now a flailing actor in Los Angeles facing the prospect of making his survival job his only job, and Zoe, who loved the show so much she memorized every detail about it, are the lone holdouts when Sheila (Andrea McArdle), a rich society matron forced to give up acting by her traditional-minded husband, tracks everyone down on Facebook and convinces them to stage a "revival" at the camp in the off-season — in the course of doing so, everyone's long-held secrets and insecurities naturally come out.

I mentioned how much this is like Follies, right? Okay. But the two shows diverge drastically in terms of depth: Greenwood doesn't have much, as neither the younger nor the older characters have concerns that haven't been addressed in myriad other shows. It feels like an After-School Special hooking up with a neurosis-of-the-week TV movie, with so much of even the feel-bad material so feel good in conception that it's difficult to respond to any of the easily foreseeable plot developments with much more than a shrug.

This accordingly leaves little territory for the songs to explore. The two best are essentially charm numbers: "I Like You," in which the teen Zoe and Alex tumble over their adolescent vocabularies trying to convey their affection; and "Do a Musical," in which the adults, costumed as a variety of Broadway figures instantly recognizable from productions ranging from Damn Yankees to the revival of Chicago, rehearse the show they hope will reform their lives. The rest are an uneasy combination of wistful, jokey, and angsty compositions that suffice as surface-level investigations but make no lasting impact.

At least the music, which has been arranged by Brian Besterman, bounces attractively under Chris Haberl's musical direction. Stancato's staging is fine, and his processed-cheese-and-jazz-hands choreography is both goofily appropriate for the milieu and embarrassingly enjoyable to watch, though it's hard to imagine it flying in many other professional-level shows. As for the acting, both pairings of Alex–Zoe actors are warm and charming, with the pint-sized Morton a particular vocal spitfire, and McArdle scores with her hard-bitten busy-body character (though, alas, she's not the one dressed as Annie during "Do a Musical").

The other 20 performers in the company are undeniably talented as well, and they're responsible for most of the buoyancy the show finds and maintains over its too-long two-and-a-half-hour running time. They, and the general geniality of this well-meaning enterprise, make Greenwood impossible to dislike entirely. But its rigid devotion to familiarity makes it almost as hard to love if you know even half as much about musical theatre as the kids did when life seemed one endless possibility rather than one bottomless regret.

Greenwood
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011


Date of a Lifetime

One of the biggest flaws of the New York Musical Theatre Festival production of Carl Kissin and Rob Baumgartner, Jr's Date of a Lifetime, which is playing at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, is also its biggest asset. Farah Alvin and Jamie LaVerdiere are so alluring, winning, and smack-your-forehead funny as serial daters Katie and Marvin that you can barely believe they'd ever need to resort to speed dating to find a potential mate. Yet here they are, trapped at a Rotate-a-Date event, plowing through some three dozen losers until they somehow magically find each other. The entertainment they provide suggests, quite openly, that this is stretching credulity a few miles too far.

But talent always deserves the benefit of the doubt, and Alvin and LaVerdiere are loaded with that. They're natural comedians, always ready with a barely perceptible eye bulge and nostril flare (her) or a what-the-heck-did-I-just-do grimace (him), and suave singers who act every note as though it were a word scribed with Shakespeare. Through it all, they both convey the barest sense of not-quite-there awkwardness that bridges the believability gap formed when the so-self-aware Katie and Marvin declare themselves unable to penetrate the urban-jungle New York dating scene.

Every extra bit helps tell the story of this show, which is not, as its title might suggest, a love-of-a-lifetime kind of musical. The two hapless lookers for love get caught up in imagining what might happen if they get together, but have no illusions that they necessarily will. The musical-lyrical theme that keeps popping up between them is called "It'll Never Work Out," and given Katie and Marvin's previous romantic histories and not-so-gently advancing ages (Marvin wails, more than once, about breaking the 40 barrier), they have every reason to believe things will not be different this time.

So they, and librettist-lyricist Kissin and composer Baumgartner, are left to fantasize. That forms the balance of the show, with Marvin envisioning a hot-burning romance that increasingly sputters until Katie dies of cancer; she then reciprocates, picturing him as the embodiment of romance and unpredictability until he settles down into stasis, develops Alzheimer's, and then leaves her behind.

Cheery stuff, right? Rest assured, there's nothing at all dire at play here. As written and directed (by Jeremy Dobrish), no bad feeling ever has time to emerge from beneath all the spunk and pizazz. The scenes are rife with good-hearted comedy, and the songs an elegant and eclectic mix of yearning, whimsy, and sentimentality. The most innately infectious are Marvin's confrontation number "WTF" and Katie's "Roller Coaster," in which she conflates the ups and downs of relationships with a ride on the Cyclone at Coney Island, but they're all a joy.

Date of a Lifetime fails to completely satisfy, however, because of its premise. So much time is spent exploring what doesn't happen to Katie and Marvin that we learn very little about who they actually are. Part of this may be due to the show's development history: It began as a monologue, then was expanded to 15 minutes, and then finally to its present 70-minute incarnation, its episodic nature only expanding at every juncture. There's nothing wrong with that approach, when it's structured around "dream sequences," as here, wide-ranging emotional involvement is tough to inspire.

As a result, much seems shallow — aside from a few well-trod stereotypes (guys like sports, women want to have someone really listen to them talk about their feelings), there's no concrete takeaway. It's junk food you feel good about sampling in the moment, but will have trouble remembering 20 minutes after you've swallowed your last bite.

Except, that is, for the actors. Alvin and LaVerdiere provide truly tasty embodiments of these two avatars of the New York singles scene, in all their questionable glory: the Chrysler Building – high standards, the judgmental attitudes, the insistence on offering an abundance within the tiniest shred of time. Yet because they're so lovable and so genuine, you always know they mean well, and that's an enormous turn on even when they're threatening to turn off each other. They'll make you forget, for about an hour or so, that Date of a Lifetime isn't the musical of a lifetime, but instead a hot-and-heavy fling you'll want to have over and over again.

Date of a Lifetime
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011