Whatever the reason it’s a concept right up there with “vampire musicals” in terms of its deceptive difficulty. And whatever the show, whether Maltby and Shire’s heartfelt but uneven Baby or The Kid, which The New Group has just opened at the Acorn Theatre, it’s not an idea that screams instant success. That’s true even when the show is, as The Kid is, based on a semi-famous source: Dan Savage’s memoir of the same title may be a compelling read, but it never manages to live, breathe, or especially sing onstage.
Written by Michael Zam (book), Jack Lechner (lyrics), and Andy Monroe (music), and directed by Scott Elliott, The Kid is another one of those musicals that seems too uncomfortable at the thought of being a musical to ever be a good one. At times it’s a comedy, at times it’s a weeper, and at times it’s an adoring tribute to Savage and his notorious sex column, Savage Love. But from the numbers that open both acts (in which desperate readers write into the preternaturally brilliant Savage for advice) to the dialogue-set-to-music songs and simple, unenergized plotting throughout, this is first and foremost a show that never desires to soar either emotionally or musically.
Instead, it wants to bite, wink, and zing entirely on its own earthy, recognizable terms. Savage employs this style to great success in his writing, because he positions himself as the body of straight-ahead irrationality in a topsily-turvily too-centered world. But that voice doesn’t float, flow, or fly — it simply slithers around on the ground like a snake forever preparing to strike. When a show needs to span a range of divergent characters with precisely articulated thoughts and sounds, let alone convey the grasp of grander observations and obligations inherent in any inter-generational conflict, this technique flattens its subject instead of filling it out.
Yet that’s the only one that the writers here employ. Dan himself (played by Christopher Sieber) provides the caustic narration through this look at how he and his boyfriend, Terry (Lucas Steele), adopted their son. They must deal with the apparently stern adoption educator (Ann Harada), their apparently patrician case worker (Susan Blackwell), the apparently disgusting street-girl mother-to-be Melissa (Jeannine Frumess) and her apparently well-meaning but dopey young ex Bacchus (Michael Wartella), and especially Dan’s apparently dopey mom Judy (Jill Eikenberry).
All those “apparentlys” are not accidental — nearly everyone Dan and Terry encounter turns out, usually within the first minute or two, to not live up to their preconceptions. This device grows tiring early on; a show in which all but its central characters are merely obstacles is seldom either fun or human. And when the songs kick in, they’re usually just as shallow: Dan and Terry are sure their sexuality will keep them childless (“They Hate Us”), they fret over the case worker’s unyielding inspection of their home (“Nice”), and must endure Melissa’s comatose explanation of the sadnesses inherent in panhandling (“Spare Changing’”).
Until the second act, no one directly addresses, let alone explores, the wonder of life that’s supposedly the point of the show. If the point of the show is that child-rearing has become a business transaction, there needs to be a stronger satirical hook. The ruthlessly plot-centered approach seldom works with musicals, especially when they’re also reluctant to put their characters’ feelings at the forefront. Judy’s “I Knew” is a rare instance of honest yearning from parent to child, and though there are other attractive numbers — “Gore Vidal,” a romance novel–inspired explanation of how Dan and Terry met; and Bacchus’s “Behind the Wheel,” ostensibly about how he wants to take charge of his life (but really about how he doesn’t) — they’re primarily driven by artifice rather than necessity.
This is true of much of the show. The orchestrations (by Dominick Amendum and musical director Boko Suzuki) sound like they were devised to fit a West Village coffeehouse band, and not fill a theater; as a result, the drama doesn’t. Sieber makes an ingratiatingly paternal central figure, constantly surprising in his slow melt into fatherhood, but everyone else fills a type: Eikenberry is generically charming as gentle-ol’ mom and the ensemble, which includes Brooke Sunny Moriber as a fantasy-pregnant hellion and Tyler Maynard as an assortment of flamboyant onlookers, doesn’t look or feel that much different from the Central Casting stuff over at Next Fall. Even Steele is colorless, which would throw the Dan-Terry relationship off the tracks if we cared about it in the first place.
Elliott has staged the show simply on Derek McLane’s mass-production hotel–meets–homey living-room set, which Howell Binkley has attractively lit. But simple is not what’s needed here — there’s too much of that already. There should be something — anything — to highlight the undertones and complexities of this surface-skimming work and make the characters something other than avatars for or easily bypassed roadblocks on the “gay people can be parents, too” movement. A musical with this many songs (the program lists 21) needs something more to sing about.
The most emblematic moment of the evening is its last. After the adoption process is concluded, Dan stands downstage center and sings, passionately but tentatively, “My Kid,” concerning all he’s learned about himself and life, and the difficult days, weeks, and years that lie ahead. But rather than leaving us with this eminently musical image, the show ends on a dialogue scene in which Dan tells us what happened at an airport, the next time he saw his mom, and other random facts from the immediate future. Some parents want a boy and get a girl; some theatrical parents want a play and get a musical. Either is fine, as long as the end product is treated like what it is and needs to be. The Kid, alas, is not.