Off Broadway Reviews
Part of The New York Musical Theatre Festival
Cigarettes are not at all plentiful in Play it Cool, but this ultra-swank musical so evokes the aromatic stuffiness of claustrophobic clubs that by the time it's run its course you might feel as though you've been bathing in smoke all night. Lyricist Mark Winkler, composer Phillip Swann, and eight other contributors of "additional music" have done a sparkling, shoulder-scrunching job of bringing to life the struggles of the early-1950s gay Hollywood underground through the quintessential American sound of jazz.
But though it's loaded with 17 gold-plated vocal numbers and a quintet of five sizzling performers, Play it Cool ultimately has little more than that atmosphere. Its story is a credibility-stretching condemnation of the Tinseltown power structure, examining the interlocking lives of the gay jazz club pioneer Mary (Mayes); her lover and star singer Lena (Victoria Lecta Cave); the clear-minded, closeted studio executive Eddie (Daniel Torres); his new just-off-the-bus squeeze Will (Josh Strickland); and police detective Henry (Michael McGuirk), whom Mary bribes to keep her operations on the down-low.
For one reason or another, they all chafe against the era's morality and legality as they try to balance earning a living with living unencumbered lives. But book writers Larry Dean Harris (who also conceived the show) and Martin Casella are too heavy-handed in addressing the time's latent cynicism and cruelty: The characters, even the ostensible victims, are so fond of hurting each other and are so rigidly opportunistic that it's impossible to like any of them. And the contortions Harris and Casella need to get them into the proper places, including a loopy late-show romance, also don't inspire much narrative good will.
The score, which musical director Joseph Baker has flawlessly arranged for a throttling three-piece combo, doesn't help matters. It's drenched in easygoing attractiveness and effortlessly alternates between scorching hot and shattering cool, but the songs are all specialties rather than character numbers. Because you get no idea of who these people are through the music they sing, the songs eventually blend into one swinging, formless mass of loneliness and whiskey-scented regret, with occasional scat-pocked brassiness popping through to camouflage the pain for a few moments.
It all makes Play it Cool more enervating than energizing, despite choreographer Marvin Tunney's smooth dances, Sharon Rosen's laser-focused direction, and terrific vocal performances from everyone in the company. Acting-wise, Strickland has all the right suave innocence for the up-and-coming Will, and Torres is wonderfully greasy as the always-strategizing Eddie. McGuirk, though, piles on too much Sam Spade to convince as a sympathetic soul, and Cave never shines quite brightly enough to be a believable beacon in either Mary's personal or professional life.
Mayes, however, is scintillating, making the drag-act Mary both maternal and cunning as the leader of a movement that doesn't yet exist. Her go-for-broke verve, which is particularly explosive in her legit nightclub spots, perfectly characterizes a woman who knows that she has nothing to fear because she's already learned life's most important lesson: always be true to yourself. When Mayes and Mary work hand in hand, that message cuts like a foghorn through the haze of Play it Cool, becoming both invigorating and insightful. The rest of the show still has a way to go before it reaches either.
Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival