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Rated P for Parenthood

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Chris Hoch, Joanna Young, Courtney Balan, and David Josefsberg.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Looking at each of the individual pieces of the new musical Rated P for Parenthood, which just opened upstairs at the Westside Theatre, it's difficult to know what to make of the show as a whole. The broad writing, comic book set, and Broadway barn–size performances scream musical comedy. Yet, try as it might (and boy, does it try), the show is only about as funny as it is original—which is to say, not very. Even if you're working on raising a family of your own, you're only likely to respond with big belly laughs if your sons and daughters have kept you away from sitcoms and domestic-themed movies for the last 20 or 30 years.

The opening number of this evening of unrelated vignettes, for example, titled (seriously) "Push it on Out," is simply a retread of the familiar idea of the husband and wife whose plans for a natural childbirth are abandoned once the contractions start. The travails of a wife who inadvertently shows too much on a widely distributed photo are more than vaguely reminiscent of those Elaine endured on a classic Seinfeld episode. Other mothers and fathers struggle with talking to their children about sex, getting them into the "right" boarding school, coping with thumb-induced dental deformation, and, eventually, sending them off to the prom and then to college. There's nothing here you haven't seen before, in ways at least as entertaining (and perhaps moreso).

There are endearing qualities to the show, however. The most outwardly evident is cast member Courtney Balan, a rubber-faced comic, razor-sharp mimic, and exciting singer who communicates a myriad of ages and attitudes, both silly and serious, with the effortlessness with which most people blink. She's the only categorical success, and makes everything with which she participates worth watching and listening to. But creators Sandy Rustin (book and lyrics) and Dan Lipton and David Rossmer (music and lyrics) prove themselves almost as resourceful and likeable once they stop straining to tell jokes and instead take aim at the heart.

"Little Boy" is a strangely lovely lullaby that acknowledges adult realities ("Daddy owes me three grand / I'll get it back in fantasy-land") that matter little compared to a newborn's not sleeping through the night. In "Prayer for Ellie," a mother movingly learns to let go when her daughter leaves for her first day of school. An aging father (sensitively portrayed by David Josefsberg, from the original cast of Altar Boyz) analyzes what's made his decades-long romance with his wife work in "A Monday Morning Love Song." And, as creaky as their subjects might be, the boarding school–focused "Interview with a Headmaster" and the mother-and-daughter-face-the-facts-of-life "School Supplies" are two nonmusical scenes that touch with their unaffected sincerity.

Instances of sweetness such as these are, alas, few and far between; the comic scenes are significantly less distinctive. There's an intriguing audaciousness to "Wild Romance," in which a dad (played with amusing scorch by Josefsberg) daydreams, with heavy-metal overtones, about the alone time he'll get with his wife while his kids are at camp. But the bulk of the remainder is dedicated to dopey skits and forgettable songs about grandparents who want to get out of babysitting, two gay fathers attempting to satisfy their straight teenage sons' urges, a mom and dad who can't let their daughter's first day working at Subway go unrecorded, and so on. The nonsensical nadir is "Man in a Uniform," in which two women sing of lusting after their sons' British soccer coach for no reason that either the show's overarching theme or good taste can pinpoint.

Chris Hoch and Joanna Young round out the talented cast, which, under Jeremy Dobrish's efficient but undistinguished direction, gets as much from what they're given as any ensemble could be expected to. Steven Capone's lean, candy-colored scenic design is attractive but two-dimensional; Emily DeAngelis's quick-change-ready costumes and Michael Gottlieb's lights are acceptable, though the sound design (by Jill BC DuBoff and David Sanderson) is overdone and overloud for the intimate space and material. Chris Kateff and Richard DiBella's projections, which relate a series of iPhone text messages chronicling one boy's upbringing, are smartly handled scene-change distractions.

Sadly, getting distracted from Rated P for Parenthood is a lot easier than getting involved in it. The revue format, even when investigating adult concerns, can be emotionally engaging—Maltby and Shire's Closer Than Ever, slated to be revived Off-Broadway later this spring, is an excellent modern example—but it needs to be composed, constructed, and, well, conceived with care if it's to make or have a point. This show's too-frenetic finale climaxes with the cast standing stage center and essentially screaming, "When you turn your phone back on / If you've heard from your parents / Dammit, for the love of God / Return your mother's call!" If you do, chances are she'll have a better moral, and more compelling stories to relate, than any you'll find here.

Rated P for Parenthood
Through May 27
Westside Theatre Upstairs, 407 West 43rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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