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Crossing Swords

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray


Darren Ritchie and Alex Goley
Photo by Lynne Robinson.

If you've flown commercial at any time in the last decade, you know that airports can be hellish. But were you aware that they can be purgatory-ish? This juice-lacking fact is the starting point for Standby, which is playing through Sunday as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. In it, five people discover that the afterlife isn't heaven on Earth after all, and that the only way for them to reach their final destination is for them to divest themselves of their baggage and solve the puzzle of why they're sharing this permanently delayed state of almost-existence.

Lest you were worried, rest assured that I haven't spoiled much about the plot—the circumstances are laid out within the first few minutes, and thus the show does not depend on surprise in that way. Or, alas, in any others. The book and lyrics, which Mark-Eugene Garcia and Alfred Solis wrote from Solis's concept, are a nonstop parade of clichés and trivialities that are never as original or as devastating as they are positive they are.

The bonds between engineering executive Richard (Darren Ritchie), philosophical psychologist Samantha (Eryn Murman), gay shopkeeper Andrew (Alex Goley), Marine officer Jonathan (Matt Shingledecker), and uptight glam girl Cynthia (Jenna Leigh Green) are not difficult to divine and not satisfying to uncover. But if the smaller pieces make a smaller impact, the big reveals—about subjects such as the specific nature of Jonathan and Cynthia's partnership and the identity of Andrew's long-absent father—are even bigger disappointments, glaringly obvious and held until so late in the action that it's virtually impossible not to learn the answers as much as an hour before anyone onstage does.

That makes Standby's waiting game one that's rarely edifying or uplifting. Though Amy Baer and Keith Robinson have composed some attractive music in an engaging, if frequently overloud, hard-pop mode, the numbers' lack of variety makes the evening constantly dull and often depressing. If not for the too-rare appearances of the terminal's otherworldly impresario (Dwelvan David, in spectacular voice) to sing a few steel-belted spirituals, there'd be nothing to penetrate the gloom of each of the quintet's hopeless existences. (Carlos Armesto's stuffy direction, which imparts no sense of space or eternity to the proceedings, doesn't help.)

At least the cast is vibrant and committed, and that counts for a lot; you don't doubt for a moment that they believe every word they speak and sing. But if they were breaking any new ground whatsoever, Standby might have a better chance at taking off; as it is, it spends almost two full hours stuck at the gate.

Crossing Swords

There's no shortage of talent involved in the new NYMF musical Crossing Swords. Writer Joe Slabe has a good ear for story and melody, and can turn out some clever lyrics. Director Igor Goldin's simple but effective staging keeps the action moving fluidly even in scenes that could easily become static. And there's nothing wrong with the cast (Linda Balgord, Ali Gordon, Steven Hauck, Lyle Colby Mackston, and Marrick Smith). Yet the show misses its mark, focusing too much on what just doesn't matter enough.

This is also the theme of the show, as Slabe investigates a private-school threesome of friends who get cast in a production of Cyrano de Bergerac and reenact their own tangled version of the tale offstage: David (Smith), cast as Christian, is in love with Nicky; Nicky (Gordon), the Roxane, is in love with Jeremy; and Jeremy (Mackston), playing the title character, is in love with David. They're not going to be happy until they learn the natural sources of inspiration from which friendships and romance derive—and that feelings cannot successfully be forced.

There's a by-the-numbers quality to their travails—Jeremy feeds David with love lines for Nicky, and so forth—but occasional pockets of innovation as well. I was particularly intrigued, for example, with how long Slabe left Jeremy's sexual orientation unspoken, trusting the audience to pick up on what the characters knew so well there was no reason to speak it.

Unfortunately, that didn't last long into Act II, when Slabe resolves the question with bland scenes of production-line outrage that reveal far fewer emotional complexities than Goldin initially hints at. Even worse is how much time the teachers (Balgord and Hauck) spend musing on everything from work to society to the story's (improbable) climax, which is denied the people who've most earned it.

Crossing Swords's all-over-the-place quality extends to its score as well. Though the diegetic Cyrano numbers are witless (and, like everything else we hear of the adaptation, anti-poetic), the rest of the songs are well considered, if never soaring. A quodlibet in which all four key relationships are explored simultaneously is the overall highlight; the maudlin Act I finale (called, sadly, "Heart on My Sleeve"), which sends you into intermission with a shrug, is the biggest letdown.

Mackston, Smith, and Gordon make a charming, and convincingly awkward, trio on whom to hang the story, and have a palpable chemistry together; Balgord and Hauck are rigorously professional, but cannot salvage their scenes. There are the beginnings of a good musical in Crossing Swords, but it won't be revealed without a much sharper execution.

2013 New York Musical Theatre Festival
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