The New York Musical Theatre Festival
Its setting of Hell’s Kitchen in 1937 (the same year Odets’s original Golden Boy premiered) is incidental in all ways except the most basic one: that it would be difficult for professional boxers to make headline-spanning livings in many other places. But aside from a few pinched accents, the characters are all actually leasing in musical-comedy La-la Land, trying to tell the story of a prize-winning champion, Eddie McSorely (Kevin Earley), defending his title (for hopefully the last time) from the only person he’s never beaten (due to some messiness between them a number of years before), the still-amateur “Gentleman” Joe Sullivan (Michael Halling). They both vie for the same girl, the World-Chronicle’s fledgling sports reporter, Jean Barker (Margaret Nichols), but it’s not a fair match-up - they both love to fight (and hopefully win) slightly more than they’re interested in finding true love. At least for the first act.
Throw in the typical bevy of supporting characters - the gym owner on the verge of losing his property (Jerry Jerger), the society-girl gossip hound (Jean Tafler) who knows how to manipulate her connected father (Evan Thompson), the photographer who trails around Jean and knows more about everything than he probably should (John Plumpis) - and you’ve got all the semi-character elements you need to start a by-the-numbers musical. Unfortunately, the writers never take the show beyond these anyone-can-do-it underpinnings, and settle instead for sloppy craftsmanship in the words and music that lingers momentarily in the ear but never builds to fill it for long.
The opening number, “Fight Night,” is the pugilistic equivalent of “Opening Night” from The Producers, only that song realized it was parodying 1950s curtain-up tropes. Jean’s introductory number, in which she goes one round with Eddie (and is, of course, victorious) is the blandly predictable “I’ll Try Anything Once.” Eddie and his gang attempt to describe their personal outlook in “Killer Instinct,” which because of poor scanning sounds like “killer in-STINCT” every time it’s sung. Meandering croon tunes pile on the clichés in “Just Thought You Should Know,” “The Manly Art of Self Defense,” and the title song (about the heavenly bodies you see when you’re in love, not when you hit the mat). “East River’d” is an endless meditation on the way certain criminals clean up their human messes. And on and on.
It’s all kind of cute, in an Oklahoma!-rejecting, ran-100-performances-in-the-mid-1940s-and-vanished-forever-because-it-didn’t-record-a-cast-album way. But should any story concerning the most violently masculine of sports - whether movie, TV show, play, or musical - ever be cute? Shouldn’t even light takes on the subject batter and bruise, to give you some idea of the blood and bones that are really at stake every time anyone steps into the ring? Eddie and Joe’s rivalry is so mild, they may as well be accountants up for the same mid-level-manager-wannabe promotion in an office job. Director Jenn Thompson and choreographer Liza Gennaro give the actors lots of fancy footwork to do, but the production doesn’t pack much more of a visual jab than it does an emotional one - it's all just waiting for the bell.
The performers try their hardest, and Earley, Halling, and Nichols all have isolated moments of appropriateness. But their tough-as-press-on-nails characters ultimately elude them, because they’re all so meaningless. The few sports musicals that are written and succeed (Golden Boy, Damn Yankees) do so as much because of the tension they generate between their characters as their tunefulness. Seeing Stars, lacking a lot of the latter and all of the former, is on the verge of a TKO from its opening scene. There might be a wallop of an interesting story to tell with these characters in this time period that Odets somehow missed, but McPherson and the Breithaupts aren’t yet managing much more than a noodle-wristed attempt at a sucker punch.