It can’t be easy to write a musical about poverty and hopelessness that doesn’t leave you wanting to slit your wrists on the way out of the theater, but with Somewhere With You, playing through tomorrow at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, Peter Zinn has accomplished just that feat.
Set both just before and not long after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the show considers a group of young adults in the South who don’t have much to call their own aside from booze, drugs, shotguns, and occasional dancing at the local bar. The silent oppression this inflicts on their lives so colors their actions and their personalities that, when they’re faced with literal life-or-death trials, they don’t know how to react except through more damage, devastation, and self-flagellation. No path, Zinn points out, is ever easy.
This is primarily true for the central couple, TJ (Graham Scott Fleming), and a woman he knows only as 23 (Katy Frame), who meet by way of the drug dealer Bakerman (an impressively manic Andrew Rothenberg), and kindle a relationship that leads them to both sober up, get together, and (try to) leave their dirtier, sadder lives behind them. That they’re unable to do that, in part because early bad choices have consequences whether we want them to or not and in part because sometimes the world (or a fanatical Middle-East terror cell) doesn’t obey our personal timetables, is responsible for most of the dramatic heft on offer.
Zinn’s direction is matter-of-fact and bright, always on-point tonally, and is augmented by engaging honky-tonk choreography by Ricardo Rust. The red-haired, ingratiating Fleming projects a satisfying jagged innocence that sells both sides of TJ with equal authority, and Frame is truly compelling as 23, navigating her expertly through her junky, reformed, and heartbroken periods, while never letting us question that all those traits could believably exist within this one broken woman. Jonathan Judge-Russo doesn’t have much to do beyond play hen-pecked and drunk as TJ’s best friend, but he does it well; and Lauren Hoffmeier brings a doom-filled attitude and a killer belt voice to the part of his emasculating wife. In smaller roles, Josh Wiles and TV star Jay Thomas each make a noticeable impact.
Where Somewhere With You both soars and falters is its score. It comprises a selection of pre-existing songs from J.T. Harding, including a few huge hits (the title number, “Smile,” and “Alone With You”), and Zinn’s skill of storytelling by subtle inference does not extend to integrating these into the narrative. In most cases, the action stops so they may be sung (“Christmas in Iraq” and “Gun,” for example, are performed by two people who barely register as characters), the numbers are performed diegetically, or you just have to suffer through half-hearted attempts at dramatization. And the pop styling of these tunes mean they tend to repeat themselves, peter out, or just plain stop at an apparently arbitrary point.
Sure, many of these songs are infectious, particularly the bouncily romantic “Smile,” and are winningly rendered by the cast and the four-piece band under the baton of musical director Danny Tejera; and this is helpful in elevating the evening. But in a theatrical context, it’s not enough to make the numbers — or the show containing them — feel relevant or necessary. For its virtues, Somewhere With You presents what is perhaps the classic jukebox musical conundrum: The book may be good and the songs may be good, but a whole lot more work needs to be done before they can be good together.
The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2014