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Adrift in Macao

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Summer's come early this year. Though it's been barely five months since the Fringe Festival went into hibernation and scarcely four since the New York Musical Theatre Festival settled in for its own 11-month nap, one just-opened musical is determined to yank us out of our winter doldrums and usher us back into the heart of summer-parodic repetition: Adrift in Macao.

Presented by Primary Stages at its 59E59 Theaters, this spoofsical with music by Peter Melnick and book and lyrics by Christopher Durang recalls the take-off shows that tend to make those summer theatre festivals memorable for all the wrong reasons. If you've thrilled to - or shuddered at - Urinetown (riffing on Weill and Brecht), Silence! (skewering The Silence of the Lambs), and even The Children (a low-budget horror take on low-budget horror), then in many ways you've already seen Adrift in Macao, and any of the 500 other musicals that could arise from this basic premise.

But if there's almost nothing in Adrift in Macao that recalls Durang's funnier parody outings (like For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls) or even his straighter stage comedies, it at least has the distinction of being a sterling example of its genre, as much as we can rightfully expect from a style of musical that never endeavors to reach beyond arm's length. Taking as its inspiration film noir classics like Out of the Past and The Maltese Falcon, the show follows a quintet of discontents (most American) through a series of appropriately contrived betrayals, revelations, and plot twists in 1952 Macao, China, that nonetheless add up to an embarrassingly good time.

That fun, though, doesn't derive from our caring about whether displaced lounge singer Lureena (Rachel de Benedet) will get together with American ex-patriot Mitch (Alan Campbell), or whether entertainment mogul Rick Shaw (Will Swenson) will win Lureena's favor in defiance of the more open and violent affections of current chief chanteuse Corinna (Michele Ragusa). Nor does it especially matter that the eminently inscrutable Asian sidekick Tempura (Orville Mendoza) - all uneasy laughter, mugging, and calling Americans "boss" - might know more than he'll admit about the crime Mitch is running from.

It's how Durang, Melnick, and director Sheryl Kaller have pasted everything together that makes their affectionate assemblage of tropes slightly more than the sum of its parts. Moments that are eye-rollingly obvious or merely timeworn emanate a faint aroma of freshness in a show that recognizes (unlike many of its summer-born brethren) the importance of good taste in any successful parody. Even when Mitch and Lureena muse in song about the existential nature of their own existentialism, Adrift in Macao seldom ceases being a family-friendly cartoon of a show offering no trenchant insights but doing anything and everything to give you a good time.

This overeagerness results in a fair number of jokes that don't land, and a considerable number more that land with a thud. Yet with an elaborate design (Thomas Lynch did the sets, Jeff Croiter the sound, and Willa Kim the exotic and plentiful costumes), a bounty of nonsensical, feel-good choreography (from the king of it, Christopher Gattelli), and performances from one of the finest troupes of musical comedians you'll see all season, the show's lapses are forgivable in light of the enjoyment you do get in return.

As for that cast, Mendoza's a staunchly stereotypical scream as Tempura, and de Benedet matches him note for sultry note as the sexy, slinky Lureena. Swenson's role is rather ill-defined, and thus doesn't give him the same opportunities as the others; Campbell pushes Mitch's masculine stoniness so far, it's hard to tell if he's mimicking Humphrey Bogart or a sequoia. Ragusa, however, takes her opium- and stardom-addicted Corinna blissfully beyond the boundaries, becoming a scintillating scene-stealer and the production's most consistently hilarious presence.

And there are of course those songs, unusually well-composed for any show that could get by with far less. There's only one clinker, an I-should-have-a-song song for Rick that's far too self-referential for its own good. But in the smoke- and fog-steeped "In a Foreign City" to a dueling duet for Lureena and Corinna in "Pretty Moon Over Macao" and "Mambo Malaysian," Melnick demonstrates an affinity for melody and old-fashioned showmanship that link him to his grandfather, Richard Rodgers, more readily than his acclaimed cousin, Adam Guettel. The title song ends as an energetic toe-tapper, while the trench coat-strewn "The Chase" perfectly particularizes the genre, and de Benedet's "So Long" is a belty torch song so on-the-spot smoldering it practically transcends parody to become the real thing.

Finally, there's the finale. I can't remember the last time a song in a parody show lodged itself so completely in my brain, but the nightclubby "Ticky Ticky Tock," which spans several thousand miles and takes in the whole cast (and even the audience in its sing-along closing), is so maddeningly addictive it will apparently require major surgery to forget; I've been humming it for days, and it's shown no signs of releasing me from its grip. Consider yourself warned. But also be heartened: That Adrift in Macao has at least one song that seriously sticks with you is something most other summer shows - and quite a few "serious" musicals - cannot easily claim.

Adrift in Macao
Through March 4
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania

Photo 1 - Rachel de Benedet, Alan Campbell, and Michele Ragusa
Photo 2 - Orville Mendoza
Photos by James Leynse

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