Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Gemini, the Musical
Many people have a lot of affection for the play, Gemini. In fact, when playwright Albert Innaurato announced that he was teaming with composer/co-lyricist Charles Gilbert to turn his 1977 comedy into a musical, he was approached by some of the stars of previous productions, asking him if they could be involved in the new version. So Robert Picardo and Anne DeSalvo, who starred in the original Broadway production, have returned. So has Linda Hart, who appeared in an Off-Broadway revival four years ago. Judging from Gemini, the Musical, one can only ask one question: Why? Whatever charms the play may have had before are almost entirely missing in the musical version.
Set in June 1973, the musical chronicles two days in the life of Francis Geminiani, an overweight misfit who feels his life "is a nightmare." He thinks he doesn't fit in anywhere not in his South Philadelphia neighborhood, and certainly not at Harvard, where he is studying to be a composer. "If only my life was an opera," he declares wistfully, leading to the first of several musical dream sequences in which he is visited by his idol, Maria Callas.
Despite his protestations, everyone in his life actually seems to like Francis, even if they don't quite relate to him. His earthy, divorced father Fran loves him, as do Fran's not-as-dim-as-she-seems girlfriend Lucille, trashy next-door neighbor Bunny Weinberger and Bunny's heavyset, asthmatic teenage son Herschel.
While home from school on the day before his twenty-first birthday, Francis gets a surprise visit from two friends from Harvard, Judith and her brother Randy. Judith is anxious to rekindle the romance she had with Francis at school, but Francis is not. When Francis reveals why he's rejecting her advances "I think I'm queer," he says it sets the stage for a big turning point in Francis' life.
However, the play does not make this turning point seem as crucial as it must be if we are to care about what happens to Francis. For one thing, as played by Barry James, Francis is not a very compelling character. He whines about how miserable he is and how he needs an escape, yet he doesn't seem overly odd, just annoying. At one point Francis tricks his Harvard friends into thinking Fran is a mobster (singing "Papa is a hit man/This is heavy shit, man/I suggest you split, man"). Later he tricks Fran into thinking his Harvard friends are heroin addicts. Yet his tricks don't seem funny, just mean. And when he reveals he's gay, it doesn't seem earth-shattering to the people around him. His revelation doesn't carry the impact that it must have had three decades ago, and the play never makes us understand why it is such a big deal.
What's worse is that, for a show billed as "an achingly funny musical comedy," Gemini, the Musical is not particularly funny. In fact, there are no laughs at all until a very funny dinner scene late in act one. Act two doesn't fare much better, so the show must depend on its dramatic tension, which is minimal. When things get slow, the script throws in frequent cursing (which may have seemed shocking in the seventies, but now seems a repetitive, boring crutch). Also, the character development feels stilted in this version more than twenty songs have been squeezed in, and the show moves far too quickly from song to song and from plot point to plot point.
Gilbert's music ranges from operatic ("Lo Cantero Per Te") to doo-wop ("Time for an Aria"), from gentle swing (Fran's "Women, Wonderful Women" and the Fran-Bunny duet "It's Been a Long, Long Time") to vaudeville-style harmony ("Francis, My Son") and even a hint of the Mummers ("Strut, Bunny, Strut"). Most of the score, however, is in a pop-rock style that has few memorable melodies. This is sad, especially for a show whose protagonist sings that he can be saved by the "spirit of melody."
The loveliest song in the show is "Trolley," a jazz-tinged ballad reminiscent of Nat "King" Cole's "Nature Boy" and sung beautifully by Herschel and Judith. As he lists what he finds comforting in trolleys, buses, trains and even old trolley schedules, Herschel turns from an obsessed, cartoonish nerd into someone genuinely loveable. You come to realize why, as Herschel sings, "In the trolley graveyard/Everything is beautiful," and why this is so important to him.
The best moments come from Innaurato and Gilbert's lyrics to the funnier songs, such as "Concrete," in which Fran explains why his South Philly home looks the way it does:
Another funny moment comes in the second act opener "I'm Gonna Jump," with Bunny threatening suicide in an outlandish way. Yet, while most of the lyrics suit the music well, they are rarely inspired. (Rhyming "silly" with "Philly" at least three times is about as inventive as the lyrics get.)
As Francis, Barry James has a strong, versatile voice. He is able to handle the operatic-style passages and the more straightforward pop with ease. As Fran, Robert Picardo (who played young Francis on Broadway 27 years ago) has a nice conversational tone to his singing and his speaking voice; both are in a South Philly accent that is not overdone. His Fran is bewildered at times by his son but is always looking out for his best interests. James gives Fran compassion and sensitivity, despite a tough exterior. It's the best performance in the show.
Anne DeSalvo originated the role of Lucille 27 years ago, and she returns to the part here; she also doubles as Maria Callas. Her Lucille is sweet and touching, and her Maria is a likeably weird diva. Yet DeSalvo's singing voice isn't up to either part. When Maria warns Francis in her first scene that her voice isn't what it used to be, she's not kidding. DeSalvo has a hard time navigating the range of Gilbert's melodies; the break between her head voice and chest voice is harsh and distracting.
Linda Hart lends her trademark offbeat charm and energy to the role of Bunny, and Todd Buonopane gives Herschel an appealing goofiness along with a lovely tenor voice. As the preppy school friends, Jillian Louis and Jeremiah B. Downes certainly look right; Louis looks like a petite Gwyneth Paltrow. However, both seem too passive in their performances.
Then again, they don't have much to work with. Despite a few outstanding moments, and despite the best efforts of Picardo and other cast members, Gemini, the Musical falls under the weight of an unsympathetic hero, an unmoving story, unfunny comedy and largely unmemorable music and lyrics. The show has a sweet tone and tries hard to make us care about Francis and his plight, but the good intentions don't make this a musical trip to South Philly worth taking.
Gemini, the Musical runs through October 31 at
the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street. Ticket are $20 for the
remainder of the run (with student rush tickets available at the door for
$10) and may be purchased by calling UpStages at 215.569.9700, or online
at www.princemusictheater.org, or by visiting the box office.
Gemini, the Musical