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Five Course Love

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

It might be time to introduce an Off-Broadway musical theatre food pyramid, because the nutritional value of this season's current offerings is frustratingly minimal.

One thinks immediately of the junk-food fiesta The Great American Trailer Park Musical, and somewhat less immediately of the negative-calorie Slut. So at first it's not clear how to approach Five Course Love, an appetizer platter in search of an entrée that just opened at the Minetta Lane. It's as disposable as the former show, as concerned with lasting love as the latter (though it's cleaner and funnier), and more genuinely heartwarming than both. (That is, of course, not saying a great deal.)

But its ingredients do seem to be better utilized overall. Author Gregg Coffin might not be a world-class chef, but he's a more-than-serviceable line cook who knows how to concoct the theatrical equivalent of an upscale TV dinner. This is the kind of show that advertises its hokey eccentricity and its limited scope one moment, and yet draws you in the next. It may thrive on clever-if-silly direction (Emma Griffin) and silly-if-cheeky choreography (Mindy Cooper), but basically it just wants its cast and audience to have a good, if forgettable, time. Taken as such, Five Course Love satisfies well enough.

After all, even the most modest of buffets generally offers something for everyone, so whatever gets your particular taste buds amused (to say excited would be pushing it), you'll find a bit of it here. Coffin tells five love stories set at five different restaurants, and lets the cuisine determine his music and tone: A BBQ joint sees a sharp-shootin' story of love at first confused sight; an Italian restaurant inspires a torrid mafia opera; a German dive is the backdrop for a jagged love triangle in the vein of Cabaret meets The Threepenny Opera meets Springtime for Hitler; a Mexican restaurant fuels the fires of a saucy competition for a spicy woman; and a retro diner spins its simple yarn with more than a dash of Grease-flavored charm.

Do the stories connect? That would be telling. It's also ultimately inconsequential; if this conceit of five one-scene musicals doesn't appeal to you, no unifying frame Coffin could provide will change your mind. The stories do, however, have two vital things in common.

The first, and most important, is an enormously talented three-person cast. Heather Ayers and John Bolton are the central lovers in each scene; Jeff Gurner plays the overworked waiters who sometimes participate in their fun. All three are dynamic triple threats, so utterly malleable in voice and physicality that they all but vanish into the caricatures they've been assigned. Their portrayals aren't deep - how odd if they were in a musical this cartoonishly cute - but they work. (Sensitive sound design from Robert Kaplowitz even allows you to hear their voices without overmiking.)

Second, and more interesting, is the absence of a sugary-sweet coating over most of what transpires. An undercurrent of unrequited love runs throughout the show, piercing the often blistering, breakneck comedy on offer and creating moments of surprising seriousness and sentimentality. Three songs in particular - "Morning Light," for a well-meaning geek; "Gretchen's Lament" for a deflated Deutsche diva; and the haunting "The Blue Flame," a fireside ballad of aching regret - are distinctive, tuneful, and highly memorable.

The rest of the score - which is handsomely orchestrated by David Labman and has musical direction by Fred Tessler - is less attractive, emotionally and melodically, and few of the other songs live as comfortably within their unique musical milieus. Coffin's "anything for a laugh" writing style - which is magnified to a large degree by costume designer G.W. Mercier (who also did the lackluster unit set) and to a lesser degree by lighting designer Mark Barton - allows for little consistency; Coffin often just tries too hard to be inventive.

But few writers could top themselves after crafting a musical number from the pre-show announcements, as Coffin does here; you haven't really lived as a theatregoer until you've heard warnings about cellphones crooned in tight close harmony. It might set up impossible expectations for the rest of the show, but Coffin almost lives up to them. The results he achieves in Five Course Love certainly won't be to everyone's liking, and you might find yourself hungry again an hour after viewing, but at least no one can accuse this show of not having a distinctive flavor of its own.

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Five Course Love
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, off of 6th Avenue between Bleecker and West 3rd Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: Ticketmaster