The Swiss Family Robinson
Life Could Be a Dream
I won't dwell too much on the real prevailing question of Life Could Be a Dream: Should the New York Musical Theatre Festival be presenting it? When it started almost nine years ago, NYMF prided itself on highlighting new scores and new voices, so diehard theatre lovers have a reason for perceiving Roger Bean's '60s bubblegum-laden jukebox musical as a stinging repudiation of that ethos. But they have even more to fret over: Life Could Be a Dream isn't bad.
That's not to say it's good, exactly. It's definitely more in keeping with Bean's own girl-group hit The Marvelous Wonderettes than it is, say, Jersey Boys. But as a high-energy, low-nutrient confection, it has its moments.
It focuses on a period boy band in the making, with guy next door Denny (Daniel Tatar), nerdy Eugene (Jim Holdridge), and buttoned-up square Wally (Ryan Castellino) desperate to win a local contest that promises a one-year recording contract as the prize. They've even found a sponsor, the local car-repair shop owner, who sends his daughter Lois (Victoria Matlock) and head mechanic Skip (Doug Carpenter) to evaluate them. We could pretend that the rest of the plot matters — Lois promotes Skip to the band's lead singer because she's in love with him, but they're from different classes so it would never work out; Denny's upset at being shoved in the back in favor of this new guy — but it really doesn't.
What does, of course, is the superlative song stack. "Sh-Boom," "Get a Job," "Fools Fall in Love," "The Wanderer," "Duke of Earl," even "Unchained Melody" and plenty of others appear, bewitchingly and pointlessly, delivered by the company with infectious energy and bounce. Director-creator Bean keeps the action moving and choreographer Lee Martino's synchronized doo-wop choreography is just right. You're never moved — you're not supposed to be — but if you love these songs, they're so lovingly rendered that it's difficult to argue too much.
Of the performers, Tatar stands out most for his easygoing charm and unaffected tenor, and it helps that his character is the most complete. One wishes Bean had more readily explored Denny: By starting to tell his shoot-to-fame story and then wandering into a conventional (and never especially compelling) wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance, he gets himself mired in mush. The Marvelous Wonderettes was far from perfect, but it wasn't afraid to take a few chances; Life Could Be a Dream settles too frequently for bland tropes that bring on the hits rather than anything resembling excitement.
All of this is standard operating procedure for the jukebox musical, and Life Could Be a Dream is a better second-tier entry than most. But its goal of selling you all these songs you already know without even pretending they're packaged in something more creative or substantial is not a great selling point for the show — whether at NYMF or anywhere else.
Swiss Family Robinson
Lost at sea is a good way to describe Swiss Family Robinson, the musical adaptation of Johann David Wyss's classic adventure story. All the essential elements are here. Shipwreck! Natives! Pirates! Working Together! Cross-dressing! But they never ride the wave into a show that ever really coheres; most of the time, in fact, the whole thing struggles to stay afloat.
The closest things come to being interesting is the opening sequence, which depicts the storm that leave the Robinsons adrift and then marooned on a desolate island. The accompanying song, unimaginatively titled "Do You Know What It's Like to Be Shipwrecked?", is negligible, but the drama and urgency of the family's plight is hammered home by sparse, creative staging unveiled at a thunderbolt pace.
Such things occur nowhere else in the nearly two-and-a-half-hour evening. Though a few of the scenes depicting the five Robinsons learning to survive in their new environment are temporarily pleasing, most of the time the musical wallows in an unconvincing romance between son Jack and British refugee Emily Montrose, comedy relief with a bevy of buffoonish French pirates that so strains you can all but see the stretch marks, and diversions with the all-white-lady island tribe of Hufis whose secrets are only revealed after endless scenes of mind-numbing intrigue.
The nadir of it all occurs in the second act, when back-to-back songs find the women singing about how bad men are and men singing about how great men are, but with most moments like the first-act finale "Jungle Drums" — in which a dreadfully uncomfortable-looking Barbara Tirrell tries (and fails) to project "primal" as a native queen — and too many of the cast members shaky or, at best, uninspiring vocalists, legitimate high points are few. Most of the ones that exist center on Elisa Van Duyne, who brings an unforced sincerity to the Robinson mother that is not matched elsewhere: Her romantic "Wintertime in Switzerland" and reflective "Upon This Peaceful Island" are appealingly acted and warmly sung anchors of much-needed humanity.
Composer-lyricist-librettist John Kennedy and librettist-director Jack Kennedy deserve credit for trying to revitalize the classical-epic musical that now only seems to appear in drastically miniaturized and often satiric form (think Peter and the Starcatcher). But their failure to deploy a consistent tone ensures that, ultimately, Swiss Family Robinson goes down with its ship.
2013 New York Musical Theatre Festival