Thou Shalt Not Book by David Thompson.
Music and Lyrics by Harry Connick, Jr. Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman. Sets by Thomas Lynch. Costumes by William Ivey Long. Lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound by Scott Lehrer. Music Direction by Phil Reno. Orchestrations and Arrangements by Harry Connick, Jr. Music Coordinator John Miller Cast: Craig Bierko, Kate Levering, Debra Monk, Norbert Leo Butz, Leo Burmester.
Emile Zola's Therese Raquin is the story of a beautiful young married woman whose passionate fling with another man leads to betrayal, murder, and eventually retribution. With Susan Stroman, fresh off her great success with The Producers, as director and choreographer of a story brimming with raw, untamed emotion, just ripe to break into dance, what could possibly prevent Thou Shalt Not, which just arrived at the Plymouth Theatre, from being her next musical smash?
The answer can be summed up in three words: Harry Connick, Jr.
With a strong understanding of jazz and a hefty amount of name recognition of his own, it isn't difficult to see how Connick could be considered the ideal choice to compose the score. With a lighter, happier musical, one less dependent on theatre-sized emotions, he may very well be. But what causes the problems that sink Thou Shalt Not is Connick's apparent fundamental lack of understanding of the theatre and the requirements for serious theatre music writing.
When Connick is allowed to just be himself, he's fine, as demonstrated by the deceptively enticing "It's Good to Be Home," the show's first number sung in a French Quarter jazz club, or the lengthy Mardi Gras sequence near the end of the first act. But as Connick possesses little grasp of plot or character, the torrid relationship between Therese and her lover Laurent is almost ignored musically. "The Other Hours," a would-be seduction song, is anything but sexy and erotic, and Therese's first solo, "I Want To Be In Love," expresses feelings about as deep as the title suggests. Many of his other songs suffer from similar problems.
In fairness, Connick does provide one good character song. "Oh! Ain't That Sweet" is sung by Camille, Therese's sickly husband, as a comment on the increasingly tense relationship between Laurent and Therese. It is completely appropriate for the situation, entertaining for the audience, and it even allows its performer, Norbert Leo Butz, to let loose with the good old-fashioned theatre singing nearly every other song in the score prevents. Butz's singing of this song so displays the connection between performer and material missing elsewhere, that extended applause at its completion is a foregone conclusion.
By that point in the show, though, Butz has long established himself as the play's best performer. Whenever he opens his mouth to speak, sing, or even cough, he does it with such conviction and dramatic purpose, you can't help but sit up and take notice. He doesn't waste a single word, breath, or motion - everything he does is steeped in meaning, and he gives everything his all. Butz gives an energetic, Tony-caliber performance from beginning to end.
Leo Burmester and Debra Monk are considerably less successful. Burmester, as the policeman friend of the Raquin family, never gets a real chance to utilize his voice or comic talents. His one solo, the watery "Take Advantage," is mostly mumbled and meaningless. Monk's abuse is greater still; though the extremely likable actress manages to milk every comic moment from her mostly unfunny and infrequent dialogue, she is given two weak songs, with opportunity to sell neither, and a presence in the second act greatly approaching that of a prop. Her acting, though, is superb, and she does everything she can.
Craig Bierko and Kate Levering, as the lovers at the center of the story, have chemistry approaching that of oil and water. Levering dances like a dream, but possesses no dramatic intensity or sensuality. She never displays a single glimmer of fire, and nothing she does suggests the awakening of long-hidden sexual urges so important to the story. She is so dull and uninspiring she frequently threatens to fade right into the background. Bierko is slightly better, occasionally appearing friendly or threatening, but never displaying the qualities that apparently draw Therese to him. Bierko's Laurent is enormously controlled and good at hiding emotions below the surface; when they deviously come out once, near the end of the first act, it works, but the void of Bierko's personality throughout the rest of the show makes him a better match for Levering than Butz after all.
Stroman receives little help from David Thompson's only competent book, but is fortunate to receive stronger assistance from Thomas Lynch's colorful, spicy sets (complete with three turntables, used to create a number of intriguing effects), William Ivey Long's attractive costumes (particularly effective during the Mardi Gras scene), and Peter Kaczorowski's lights; they all establish the scene far better than Connick's music. Stroman's direction is frequently skittish and tentative, but her choreography is often more troubling. The show has three ballet sequences - Therese dancing with laundry in the first, Therese and Laurent's first sexual encounter (complete with a revolving bed!), and Therese's late second act sexual exploration. These moments, usually overextended, make Stroman appear at a significant loss for ideas. A few of her other choices, though, including using black-clad ensemble members as a sort of choreographic scene change device, suggest creativity not being fully tapped.
If that is the case, it is completely understandable. A choreographer, like an actor, is usually only as good as his or material. The same flaws that leave the actors (except for Butz) standing on stage looking like deer caught in the headlights of an approaching truck also trap Stroman; because of the insufficient drama in the music, they have as little to dance as they do to sing.
But, throughout the evening, Stroman keeps the actors working, and why not? It's what she does best. Her efforts ultimately achieve little, thanks to Connick, and Thou Shalt Not clearly comes across as one of her weakest efforts. While the show displays in spades her willingness to take risks with material, it also demonstrates her need to work with the right collaborators. Connick may not be as fortunate, but Stroman will bounce back from Thou Shalt Not and go on to additional successes. This stumble should serve to remind everyone that no one - not even one of Broadway's biggest names - is immune to making big mistakes.