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Unlock'd

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Unlock'd
A.J. Shively and Sydney James Harcourt
Photo by Richard Termine photographed at The Duke on 42nd Street.

Step into The Duke on 42nd Street and it won't be long until you feel a crushing burden being spirited from you. That's the impact that raw, undiluted joy has on musical lovers, who for too long have had to endure dark and drear even throughout evenings that otherwise aspire to effortless entertainment. Take, for example, this just-finished Broadway season's biggest hits: Matilda, Kinky Boots, and the revival of Pippin all seem to derive infinite pleasure from weighing more than the Empire State Building.

Such a thing may not be said, however in passing, by Unlock'd. The Prospect Theater Company production of Sam Carner and Derek Gregor's new musical at the Duke is feather-light and utterly guilt free. But as was the case with creations from the masters of the Main Stem's storied Golden Age — Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and so on — inconsequential does not have to mean insubstantial. Carner and Gregor's astounding, enveloping evening ranks as one of modern history's sturdiest flimsy operetta.

Yes, I said operetta. A comic one, to be sure, loaded with legit voices, sumptuous staging (by Marlo Hunter), and even (given Prospect's budgetary constraints) healthy doses of spectacle that leave no lingering doubt as to its genre.

It's important to note that although librettist-lyricist Carner and composer Gregor pay unyielding tribute to that once-cherished, now-forgotten (when not mocked) form, never do they let it consume them or their show. They don't settle for empty pastiche, nor do they even bother quoting at recognizable length from the sweepingly melodic likes of Kern and Hammerstein, Romberg and Fields, or even Gilbert and Sullivan — because they don't need to. They've given it a life of its own within this "antiquated" language, and the fusion could not be more apt, or more appetizing.

After all, the source material which it's (quite) loosely based, Alexander Pope's 1712 poem "The Rape of the Lock," elevated a useless situation — a woman's hair being cut off — to the realm of heroic ridiculousness, thus demonstrating exactly how out of proportion that inciting incident was. In theatrical terms, operetta today is in many ways as culturally foreign as the battle epic was in Pope's, making it possible for Carner and Gregor to attain the same effect with just a little honest tweaking of their own.

Unlock'd
Jillian Gottlieb and Jennifer Blood
Photo by Richard Termine photographed at The Duke on 42nd Street.

Much of that manifests itself in the warring quartet at the center of the work. Baron Roderick Shearing (Sydney James Harcourt) is a war hero just returned from three years on the battlefield and discovering he's considerably more able with weapons than with women. His younger brother, Edwin (A.J. Shively), is the studious type who says things like "women are a needless distraction." Clarissa (Jennifer Blood) is a saucy, punchy young woman who's spent most of her life being compared unfavorably to her preternaturally gorgeous step-sister, Belinda (Jillian Gottlieb), who so adores her one-of-a-kind lock of hair that she's even named it (Beatrice, for the record).

The exact specifics of the events that lead to the dastardly trimming in the final seconds of Act One, and the recriminations and retributions that follow, strangely don't matter much. Much of it is of the simple, playful variety that concerns itself with little more than whether this man likes that woman and whether she likes him back, or whether she actually prefers someone else. If you're familiar with twisty high romance, more or less in keeping with the kind of rarefied partner switching of Così Fan Tutte, you have a good idea of what you're in for. (Though a sextet of invisible gnomes and sylphs, who in their off hours double as the dopey upper crust, is admittedly something of a departure.)

But it's all handled with grace and class that command your attention by virtue of their very presence. Clarissa's opening invocation, rendered, as is much of the dialogue, in rhyming verse, sets the heightened tone of the evening ("Bright as the sun, her eyes on gazers strike, / But like the sun, they shine on all alike"), and it seamlessly melts into the singing that surrounds it. From Roderick's soaring opener, "Waiting for the Sun," through the gloriously addictive bounce of the multilayered "Hampton Court," straight through to the finale, the songs blithely capture the felicities and unpredictabilities of affection in its myriad incarnations: from anticipation to acquisition to absence.

Even when the gnomes and sylphs chime in on the subject, using rather earthier tones, you're always left floating rather than grounded. Everything is just that consistent, thanks to the warmly string-heavy orchestrations (by the writers, musical supervisor Brad Haak, and several other contributors), music supervisor Brad Haak and musical director Adam Wachter, and especially Carner and Gregor's fidelity to form. Only one number, Roderick and Clarissa's "By the Light of Your Love" in the second act, feels extraneous, as if it were composed to be a standard rather than an integral piece of a larger puzzle.

Hunter's stellar direction and choreography beautifully complement the writing, as does the physical production, with Wilson Chin and David L. Arsenault's no-nonsense set depicting blossoming hedge mazes and tony drawing rooms equally well, and especially Amy Clark's resplendent costumes identifying at a glance just who these people are. (Everything is well lit by Cory Pattak.)

The cast members richly embody them, too. Gottlieb's searing soprano (and, on occasion, her velvety belt) is as much a marvel to behold as the expert comedy chops she displays in her reverence to Beatrice, and the bloated tragedy she embodies once they're separated forever. Shively and Blood are terrific in fielding the complexities of their slightly more realistic characters, and never allow them to become caricatures in their own right or push too hard to elicit laughs. Chris Gunn and Catherine LeFrere are winning as the gnomes' and sylphs' leaders, too. Only Harcourt, who reads as a bit stiff and distant, does not entirely convince as the passion-focused Roderick.

Everything else works as splendidly as it did when I first encountered the show as part of the 2007 New York Musical Theatre Festival. In the five and a half years since, it's lost none of its bite or its glow, which is no small achievement these days, when it's all too easy to work (and workshop) a fine piece to death.

Unlock'd, though, shimmers with life in a time when we need that illumination more than during any other in recent memory. It may not change anyone's soul, but that's okay. Carner and Gregor have demonstrated nevertheless that when musicals are taken seriously and gotten right, they can still be ravishing experiences truly worth singing about — and seeing again and again.


Unlock'd
Through July 13
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: dukeon42.org