The only subtle joke in the new musical Bingo, which just opened at St. Luke's, is that it starts with a blackout. Not the traditional "house lights to half, house lights out" kind that characterizes today's theatergoing ritual, mind you, but a sudden and total absence of any and all light, plunging the theater into a desolation like that of outer space or, well, a fully spent bingo card.
For you non-aficionados, the "blackout" is usually the last, longest, and most rewarding game in any given Bingo evening - this too well typifies the inclination of this cutely clumsy musical toward playing too many of its best cards too early on. Something of an adult white-trash answer to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Bingo focuses on a group of women who learn lessons about trusting in others, themselves, and the transformative powers of the luck of the draw.
Lest I make the show sound too profound, let me assure you that writers Michael Heitzman and Ilene Reid (book, music, and lyrics) and David Holcenberg (music) have done everything possible to make it as simple as possible. There is, for example, a song called "Gentleman Caller" about one woman's crush on the man who reads the numbers. Another, intended to be at least moderately poignant, is built entirely from the similarities between the word "before" and the possible card entry "B4."
Yes, Bingo is to My Fair Lady what bingo itself is to chess. But if it never delivers the deluxe, spray-cheese joy of The Great American Trailer Park Musical, it's giggly enough to pleasantly sustain most of its 90-minute running time, if utterly without risk of threatening to mildly strain your brain, your heart, or your funny bone. And its power-packed cast (led by Liz McCartney, Janet Metz, Liz Larsen, and Klea Blackhurst) and some dizzy-dopey direction from Thomas Caruso do flatter the material, which needs all the help it can get.
The story itself is some nonsense about long-held rivalries, betrayal, and secret identity; it's as incidental as it is forgettable. What does prove interesting - and even bears a clever creative spark - is the focus on the eccentricities of the bloodthirsty bingo brood: how the game's 76th anniversary celebration trumps personal safety on the night of a terrible storm, how superstition (here in the form of daubers, trolls, and even a plastic snake) informs the diehard cultist's culture, and how calling out a false bingo is a crime just short of a capital offense.
It's enough to make you think that these same writers might have had more success with an unabashedly plotless revue about this quirky community, something not needing to concern itself with a story so thin and uninvolving that the score had to be padded with pallid space-fillers. The more original of these is the creepy "Ratched's Lament," sung by Beth Malone as a young woman (with a secret, of course) demonstrating one of the songs of the new Off-Off-Off-Broadway musical Cuckoo, which is based on... well, you know.
But there's no adequate compensation for the lack of substance that leaves you feeling both amused and as though you were just one number away from the evening's prize jackpot. McCartney, Metz, Larsen, and Blackhurst may raise the roof of Eric Renschler's cartoonish set with their tremendous voices, and Chevi Colton may delight with her cleaner spin on a bitchy-old-bingo-broad role. But in the game of musical theatre, there aren't enough free spaces to give this show the full five in a row it needs, whether down, sideways, or diagonally.