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Chicago by John Olson

The Goodbye Girl
Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace

The Goodbye Girl
Susan Moniz and Bernie Yvon
After having a sizable hit with a two-character musical set in a show-business milieu (They're Playing Our Song), it's not hard to picture how Neil Simon, Marvin Hamlisch and producer Emanuel Azenberg figured they couldn't go wrong with a three-character musical (not literally, but essentially) set in a show-business milieu, and one based on a proven property at that. In adapting the screenplay of Simon's The Goodbye Girl, the 1977 monster hit movie, they didn't go wrong. They just didn't go right, exactly, either. Simon's story of a single mom with a bad track record in dating has some moments that are enhanced through song, but not so many that the story cried out to be musicalized.

Simon wrote some terrific, nuanced characters, brought to life in some legendary performances. Marsha Mason and Quinn Cummings earned Oscar nominations for their performances as mom Paula McFadden and her young daughter Lucy, while Richard Dreyfuss accomplished the rare feats of a winning a Best Actor award as a young man and for a comic role at that. The plot has little tension, though. Paula's latest actor boyfriend slips out of the country just as they're supposed to move to California, and subleases their apartment to Elliot Garfield, an actor from Chicago. The three agree to share the two-bedroom apartment, and the tension of negotiating a deal, then learning to live together in a confined space creates some initial conflict. We know Paula and Elliot are going to end up together, though, and, in fact, the road to their eventual commitment to each other is not all that rocky or suspenseful. If there's a reason to revisit the piece, it's to reconnect with these characters rather than relive the story.

For those who remember the movie, a comparison to the performances in it is impossible to avoid and it puts a huge burden on the performers. This production's Paula, Susan Moniz, is appealing in the role catching the 35-year-old dancer's combination of strength and vulnerability and selling her nice-enough songs with her sure and strong voice. Bernie Yvon who does character roles more often than leading ones makes the role of Elliot his own, using his considerable comic skills to play him a little more broadly than did Dreyfuss in the film. As daughter Lucy, played by the nine-year-old Quinn Cummings in the movie but identified as age 13 in this version, Theresa Moen can be credited for not mugging and providing a nicely understated performance and a quite professional singing voice, but she lacks the adorable precociousness Cummings gave to Lucy.

The paradox of adapting a popular work to another medium is that the audience most attracted to the new piece by virtue of its affection for the original source is going to be the most disappointed if the new piece doesn't somehow provide the same satisfaction of the first. This is hard enough even when an adaptation adds new meaning or insight to the characters or theme, but next to impossible when it doesn't. With The Goodbye Girl, Simon stuck quite closely to his original screenplay which was fairly stage-like in the first place, with most of the action occurring in the apartment shared by Paula and Elliot. As a result, the musical is largely the screenplay performed on a stage. There are a few moments when the songs take us someplace new "No More" and "How Can I Win" are effective interior monologues in which Paula processes her feelings, and "Paula (An Improvised Love Song)," sung by Elliott during his romantic rooftop dinner with Paula is a moment that deserves to fly into song. "A Beat Behind," showing Paula's difficulties in returning to dance class, is a fun production number and one of the few showcases for the production's excellent ensemble and choreography by Tammy Mader.

Many of the other songs aren't as successful. "Footsteps," a duet for Paula and Lucy in a nice mother-daughter conversation, isn't interesting enough to justify going into song. "My Rules," a musicalization of Elliot's tirade, as he reacts to Paula's "rules" for the apartment and issues his own, seems longer and less funny than the same speech spoken in the film.

Director Gary Griffin, highly experienced in reviving "lost" musicals through his work for New York and Chicago's Encores Series as well as his Broadway revival of The Apple Tree, has given this show a fair hearing. A strong supporting cast including Cherisse Scott as landlady Mrs. Crosby and Neil Friedman as both the director Mark and the TV personality "Ricky Simpson" reinforces the three creditable leads. Set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, who's done magical things with all sorts of spaces and budgets, is equally impressive on a traditional proscenium stage. His set captures the feel of Manhattan's Upper West Side with flats representing a subway station and the exterior of the apartment building. He places the believable-looking apartment on a turntable, so that the bedrooms are revealed when the living room rotates away and caps this central set piece with a miniature skyline of Manhattan above it.

All told, The Goodbye Girl is not a bad time at the theatre. No matter what one remembers of the film or its performers, Simon's characters are original, likable and nuanced. Griffin and his cast understand they don't have to push to win us over to their side and they do a good job performing Hamlisch's decent score (with lyrics by David Zippel that don't consistently match Simon's wit). It's always fun to catch up with "lost" musicals like this one, even when they prove that (and help to explain why) ideas that look good on paper don't always pan out as well as you might expect.

The Goodbye Girl will be performed through March 2, 2008 at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace. Performances are Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m., Thursdays at 1:30 and 8 p.m., Fridays at 8:30 p.m., Saturdays at 5 and 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 6 p.m. For reservations, contact the theatre 630-530-0111 or www.drurylaneoakbrook.com; or contact Ticketmaster at 312-599-1212.


Photo: Greg Kolack

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-- John Olson



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