Regional Reviews: San Diego
It's Christmas Eve, and Ben (Jason Danieley) and Molly (Michelle Duffy) are each alone in their New York apartments. Ben is writing a song at his Steinway baby grand piano (a gift from Molly, it turns out), while Molly is packing up her belongings in preparation to move to Michigan. Both have half-consumed drinks nearby, always a bad sign. Impulsively, Molly decides to phone Ben, and their conversation sets off a chain of memories about how they met and how their relationship progressed and ultimately failed.
The show flashes back to the two in their younger days (Andrew Mueller plays Young Ben, while Jenni Barber plays Young Molly). Ben and Molly were both working at the same restaurant, Ben playing piano and Molly working as a server. They met cute, sort of, and just as sort of seemed to fall in love with each other. Ben showed promise as a song writer, and Molly was taken with his talent, though never overly so. And, she was jealous of his attempts to make it in the industry by writing for "that girl" (an unseen rising recording artist), to the point where "that girl" moved on without Ben.
"The Gift of the Magi" serves as a touchstone for their relationship. They give each other a copy of it, and when things go bad one or the other is likely to read passages from the tale. Aware of the contradiction of the gifts in the story, Ben and Molly mostly avoid giving gifts to each other. But each longs for the gift of the other, which both withhold. Ben keeps saying that he's writing a Christmas song as his gift to Molly, but by the time he comes up with it the relationship has long been over.
It's a story that emphasizes the melancholy many experience during the holiday season, and Mr. Sater's book starts well in the get-acquainted scenes but deteriorates as melancholy overwhelms the relationship. He also uses a device of allowing the young and mature versions of each character not only to see but to interact with each other, which leads to a number of "shoulda, coulda, woulda" kinds of exchanges that drag down the character development. The audience has stopped caring about Ben and Molly long before they, inevitably, decide to wish each other a Merry Christmas and move on.
Mr. Bacharach, writing his first score for a musical since the 1968 Promises, Promises, emphasizes melancholia as well, resulting in a score consisting almost entirely of ballads and torch songs. None of these songs is badly written, but Mr. Bacharach does have a distinctive style, and a bunch of songs of the same type will invariably start to run together. The one the comes off as the best of the bunch, "Welcome to My World," is an anthem to youthful ambition sung at a more up-tempo beat than the others. We don't get a fully developed version of the song Ben has been trying to write until the curtain call, and by then it's way too late.
The Old Globe's White Theatre proves not to be a particularly hospitable place to stage this piece, but it was the only choice, given that its perennial production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas is playing next door on the larger proscenium space. The necessity of staging in the round with an eight-piece orchestra located under the stage (playing orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, no less) creates directorial problems for Will Frears and musical staging problems for Denis Jones, and they don't solve them terribly well. Takeshi Kata's set is hampered by a noisy trap that brings in a variety of beds for the lovers, and Leon Rothenberg must have had a horrible time with a sound design that had to mic the band and the performers, as well as put music into two onstage pianos. At least as of the opening, the problems inherent in such a design had not been satisfactorily resolved. Jenny Mannis and Ben Stanton have provided utilitarian costume and lighting designs, respectively.
The performers tried their best to make it all work. Mr. Mueller is the stand-out, a boyish figure who could easily soar into a high tenor range as needed and whose demeanor is always luring Molly back even as he is pushing her away. His bio indicates that he has played Charley Kringas in the Sondheim/Furth musical Merrily We Roll Along, and I bet he'd be ideal in that role. Ms. Barber sings her more torchy numbers especially well, and Mr. Danieley and Ms. Duffy both handle their singing duties with charm, even though their characters are not particularly charming.
There's a lot of talent that's not going particularly anywhere on the Old Globe stage through December 31, and that's a shame.
Through December 31 at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre on the Old Globe campus in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets ($35 - $74) are available by calling the Old Globe box office at (619) 23-GLOBE
The Old Globe presents Some Lovers, book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Burt Bacharach. Directed by Will Frears with Lon Hoyt (Music Supervisor), Denis Jones (Musical Staging), Takeshi Kata (Scenic Design), Jenny Mannis (Costume Design), Ben Stanton (Lighting Design), Leon Rothenberg (Sound Design), Jonathan Tunick (Orchestrator), AnnMarie Milazzo (Vocal Designer), Jim Carnahan, CSA (Casting) and Matthew Silver (Stage Manager).
The cast includes Jenni Barber, Jason Danieley, Michelle Duffy and Andrew Mueller.
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