Sometimes old-fashioned is so retro it's chic; sometimes it just creaks. Rachel, the new musical at the Wings Theatre, unquestionably fits into the latter category - this show about the uneasy love between President Andrew Jackson and his wife is either the newest old musical in Manhattan or the oldest new musical in the world.
Bernice Lee (book and lyrics) and Lou Greene (music) have written a musical so antiquated that you don't hear the musical director (Richard Sterne) turn pages, you sense his score crumbling to dust at the merest touch. It's the kind of show with staging (by Scott Pegg) that promotes a return to 18th-century acting styles, with most songs and speeches delivered straight to the audience and accented with exuberant hand gestures and other hallmarks of what we'd consider shameless overacting. It's the kind of show with relatively exquisite period costumes (from Tom Claypool) that try to establish character in a vacuum, and fail by a far smaller margin than they should.
But above all, this is a musical more concerned with being educational than entertaining, and ultimately succeeds at being neither. A courtship scene between Andrew and Rachel, which applies the metaphor of building a fire to the idea of burgeoning love, is instructive for all the wrong reasons; the tremulously warbling voices of the cast members and the uncertainty most of them display onstage prevent you from assimilating many other lessons.
So does the writing, which is rife with declarations by turns florid and impenetrable: "You died fighting Indians to protect her place" is one typical lyric, while "Brazen hussy! I cannot have my wife defiling my house" is fairly representative of the dialogue in Lee's hopelessly overwrought book. To be fair, the story, about a sham of a first marriage that throws questions of legitimacy onto Rachel's second with the future president, has legitimately torrid operetta potential. But because there's so much history to be shared, the show as a dramatic work is never allowed to develop: The story is narrated by Rachel's family's legal counsel John Egaton, but his connection to the story is tangential at best, essentially reducing Rachel and Andrew to bit players in their own saga.
Under the circumstances, that's just as well: She can sing, but is strident and unconvincingly affected by the barbs of her disapproving countrymen; he's got the requisite strength, but can barely carry a tune or more than one emotion at a time. Their names, as well as those of their underequipped castmates (trapped in roles like a family friend with an unhealthy Daniel Boone obsession or a knowing black maid styled after Ethel Waters in The Member of the Wedding), won't be revealed here for their own sakes. At least Mark Silverberg brings a firm, operatic voice to Egaton, providing the production's one tolerable performance, but there's only so much that faded portraits can ever be successfully animated.
Pegg's staging similarly tries to inject some energy into the proceedings, but is a lost cause by the time Rachel's insensitive clod of a first husband intones the words "wanton behavior" like a cuckolded mailman. Focusing on such silliness isn't advisable, though - only Sterne's fine piano playing doesn't dissolve into the ether after a while. Even so, it's impossible not to wish the producers had budgeted for a harpsichord instead, so the music could be experienced as it was truly meant to be enjoyed.