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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Leslie Kritzer and Doug Kreeger
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Any room - or theater - is more interesting when Leslie Kritzer is in it. With a stunning belt voice, the crack timing of a Golden Age comedienne, and a naked connection to her soul, she's one of the few young performers today capable of molding any role of any size into a naturally nuclear star turn. She's played Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, an airheaded sorority coryphaeus in Legally Blonde, and even Patti LuPone at Les Mouches, and in every case proven herself one of the sharpest, most resourceful singing actresses around. Though her talents have rarely been tested more than by Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon's musical Rooms, which just opened at New World Stages, Kritzer still transcends her bland surroundings and becomes extraordinary.

This vest-pocket show tells the atom-pocket story of the Catholic Ian (Doug Kreeger) and the Jewish Monica (Kritzer), who meet in their native Glasgow, set out to conquer the singing stages of London and New York, and fall in and out of love several times along the way. Set against the background of the punk rock revolution of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the story has the faint odor of danger around its fringes, but is otherwise hopelessly safe and relentlessly cute. That might be acceptable were it not also eye-rollingly predictable, touching on topics as potentially weighty as alcoholism (his) and artistic frustration (hers) only to dispel them a scene or an hour later.

When Rooms first appeared at the 2005 New York Musical Theatre Festival, with different actors but the same director it has here (Scott Schwartz), it was both saccharine and acrid, anchored by a few attractive heavy rock tunes, weighed down by several others of no discernible distinction, and slathered with triteness. Ian and Monica were so introspectively insignificant that they were all but dwarfed by the bare-bones production and the smallish Off-Off-Broadway theater around it - at its best, the show felt more like a staged concept album than fully realized drama. Even today, very little has changed.

Except Kritzer. Her iron-plated vocal folds are perfect for convincing us of Monica's exceptional talent. But it's her slight air of waifishness that explains why suffers bad breaks and the effects of bad choices, her constant pulse of optimism that carries her through debilitating trials, and her knife-in-the-back knack for humor that reveals her tantalizingly individuality. Just by curling and pursing her lips she can bring the house down with laughter - and collapse your heart along with it.

As Kritzer plays her, Monica is the primal center around which Ian's world revolves - exactly what the show needs to overcome the clich├ęs that flood Goodman and Gordon's book and Gordon's composition. A powerful Monica grants reason to the pointless existence that's led Ian to become a self-imposed shut-in, and forces his artistic wallflower to achieve full bloom. Her being responsible for him adds pungency and poignancy their most severe of break-ups, when they see past their successes and failures to the fact that their deceptively healthy relationship had been constructed on a foundation of impending blame.

It would work even better with a more compelling Ian. Kreeger, who was so magnetic in the Off-Broadway production of Thrill Me, here just wallows in Ian's whiny, floppy-haired existence. His drowning in drink (following in his father's sloshing footsteps) is a foreground conclusion because Kreeger never lets you believe that Ian's latent gifts have merely been in hibernation. His every action is reluctant, even bored; you want Ian to come alive because of the magnificent girl he's met, but he can't - he's already too far gone. Kreeger sings and plays the guitar decently, but displays no secret facets of Ian's life.

Goodman's songs are rife with the club-thumping sounds of the era, but can't help Kreeger find the man in his moper: They're drearily dressed up pop rather than theater-ready. Kritzer avoids the problem by attacking every song (especially her blistering and anxious tour-de-force, "Bring the Future Faster") as if it's part of Monica's imaginary concert debut. Kreeger's lackadaisical take and Goodman's largely indifferent material confine Ian to coffee shops.

At least Schwartz seems to have escaped one. He's toned down his original caffeinated staging and focused more intently on Ian and Monica than on the door-on-casters that is still pushed around to define every playing space. (The set, a multitiered, vaguely clublike construction, is by Adam Koch.) This lets you judge the story's human core more easily, even though it usually ends up looking and sounding hollow.

Kritzer, however, fills it to the brim at every available opportunity: sometimes with sugar, sometimes with vinegar, sometime with tears. But she's determined to leave no receptacle of comedy or emotion dry, and to ensure that Monica isn't just a rich, complicated, and rewarding character, but a real person. She succeeds, not just making Monica worth leaving the house for, but making Rooms worth leaving the house for - even if most of the rest of it is empty.

New World Stages / Stage 2, 340 West 50th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets: Telecharge

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