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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Hunter Foster and Sebastian Arcelus
Photo by Paul Kolnik.

If real MTA employees were as helpful as Stanley, the subway conductor at the center of the new musical Happiness at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, New Yorkers might not mind the impending fare hikes. Stanley may be bitter, brooding, and unapproachable, but once you leave the station, he'll ensure you get where you need to be, even if it's not where you expect or think you want to go.

Of course, Stanley does charge an unusual fare: Rather than wanting MetroCards or tokens, he requires that you reveal one perfect moment you've experienced and then, bang, you're off. To... well, that's not so important. What matters more are those flawless jewels of memory tracked down, sometimes with great difficulty, by the passengers aboard Stanley's train on one fateful day, that give this show more than its fair share of glimpses of brilliance and wonder.

Only glimpses, unfortunately. As long as you accept this musical, which has a score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (of Grey Gardens) and a book by John Weidman (Big, several Stephen Sondheim shows), and which has been directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, as a collection of individual elements, you can have a good - or maybe great - time. But take aim at the bigger picture and you'll find the recoil a killer.

At its heart, this is at best a glorified revue. Of new and inventive material, to be sure. Although the pieces peacefully cohabit in a wonderful-looking and -sounding production, they never come together in any real way. The most troubling part is that it barely seems they're supposed to. Following a caffeinated yet brief musical sequence depicting a typical busy Monday morning in New York, nine people join Stanley (Hunter Foster) for literally the ride of a lifetime. Once Stanley introduces the conceit, it's immediately obvious we'll cycle through each person and his or her choice, then the show will end. Your tolerance for this will determine whether Happiness leaves you happy or frustrated.

Hunter Foster, Sebastian Arcelus, Ken Page, Miguel Cervantes, Joanna Gleason, Jenny Powers, Pearl Sun, and Robert Petkoff.
Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Each recollection is a boilerplate, self-contained scene several minutes in length. The wheelchair-bound Helen (Phyllis Somerville) recalls meeting a handsome GI in a USO club during World War II. Doorman Kevin (Fred Applegate) can't forget the historic first game of the 1954 World Series, when Willie Mays made his worst seats in the ballpark a whole lot better. Maurice (Ken Page), an interior designer, has never gotten over his lover Albert who died in the late 1980s. Miguel (Miguel Cervantes), a bicycle messenger, spent a very special night with his young daughter. And so on.

The lack of musical or dramatic continuity between the bits (aside from Bruce Coughlin's excitingly throbbing orchestrations) prevents things from ever cohering entirely. The banter in the in-between subway scenes is well-intentioned, but doesn't keep the group from feeling more like a collection of specialty acts than specific personalities. Gina (Jenny Powers), a self-professed globetrotter who can't decide what she wants to relive, and Zack (Sebastian Arcelus), a recklessly driven lawyer who's positive he got on the wrong train, provide a bit of variety. But when even ostensible outsider Stanley gets in the act, recollecting his former life as a Wall Street power broker, you start wondering whether every number is merely a Frankel-Korie trunk song.

If so, many of them are uncommonly good. Applegate's "Best Seats in the Ballpark" is sensational, a moving union of father and son under the most unique of conditions; Powers triumphs with "Gstaad," about Gina's most memorable trips abroad; and Helen's USO gig is a swinging high point summoning up the best of 1940s musical styles. That opener, "Just Not Right Now," is breathless and energetic, just like New York at the start of a new week, and Stanley's "Blips," about the slightly sadistic joy he finds in every train breakdown, is the height of sly smoothness and a close fit for Foster.

The only complete embarrassment is "Road to Nirvana," sung by the "conservative" shock-jock (Joanna Gleason, not at her best) who reveals herself a closet Democrat with a yearning to return to the acid-fueled 1968 orgy she took part in just before Nixon was elected. Robert Petkoff and Pearl Sun are appealingly neurotic as a Jewish-Chinese couple, but their big duet, "Family Flashcards," in which they learn the ins and outs of each other's language and lineage is more lighthearted party entertainment than the romantic footsy it's supposed to be. Page's and Cervantes's numbers are bland, but well performed; Arcelus has few songs of his own, but is convincing as the attorney forced to prosecute his own missed opportunities.

Were it not for him, however, there would be little of note about the show or its warning to not let life speed by. As it is, the most shocking discovery is Stroman: This is her best work in years. Her dances are far more original than those in Young Frankenstein and evince few of her typical tricks; her staging is innovative and experimental, utterly unrelated to her usual cartoon realism. Meshed with Thomas Lynch's dynamic sets (especially the elaborate, stage-filling subway car), William Ivey Long's crisp costumes, and Donald Holder's rich lighting, this is one of the most 2009-looking and -behaving shows of the season.

But one can't help wish the authors had set their sights higher. Grey Gardens proved that Frankel and Korie could establish and maintain an unusual musical language across multiple types of characters and plots; that skill would have prevented the score from sounding like a dusty jukebox set on random. Like the songs, Weidman's book is full of choice morsels that never solidify because they never have to.

Had the clever concepts and structure been united with words and music that elevated rather than isolated them, they could have formed the smartest and most artistically successful musical of the season. As it is, it's still delightfully unpredictable and fascinating, even if it's destined to depress those desperate for the next great, complex musical drama.

Through June 7
Mitzi E. NewhouseTheatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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