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The Last Smoker in America

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Farah Alvin standing on the table, surrounded by (left to right) Natalie Venetia Belcon, John Bolton, and Jake Boyd (standing at back).
Photo by Joan Marcus

Is it good or bad when the only memorable thing about a musical is its message? Intrepid theatregoers may find themselves arguing endlessly about this with regards to The Last Smoker in America, which just opened upstairs at the Westside Theatre. Librettist-lyricist Bill Russell and composer Peter Melnick have written something truly unique: a title in which all of the component parts dissolve in your memory while you're watching them unfold, yet you somehow remain haunted by what they add up to.

The sum total of the evening is a satire about American for-your-own-good regulation, focusing on how the titular character, a suburban mom named Pam (Farah Alvin), tries to maintain her favorite, tobacco-filled habit in a supposedly free country that doesn't value her right to choose. So far has the anti-nicotine movement spread, in fact, that her life is constantly monitored by a system called the Anti-Smoking Penalty Help You Xpect In America (or ASPHYXIA for short) that alternately spouts out inspirational and threatening words whenever it detects straying from the established orthodoxy. It doesn't help that neither Pam's husband Ernie (John Bolton) nor their son Jimmy (Jake Boyd) understand her fixation, and their religious neighbor Phyllis (Natalie Venetia Belcon) is especially intent on helping Pam replace her addiction with one to God instead.

All this is actually fine ammunition for biting commentary, but it doesn't easily sing—once you've cycled through the "I want to smoke," "Honey/mom, please don't smoke," and "You're going to hell if you smoke" numbers, what's left? Not much, so Russell and Melnick pad things out with so much filler their book show practically becomes a revue. Pam and Ernie remember their first romantic night together, Jimmy wishes he were black, Ernie (an aspiring musician) sings a couple of the songs he's writing, and so on, killing time with reckless, anchorless abandon until the 95-minute endeavor has run its course.

Melnick has proven himself a gifted melodist very much in the thoughtful school of his grandfather, Richard Rodgers, with a memorable previous Off-Broadway credit in Adrift in Macao, and Russell's own work in musicals like Side Show and Lucky Duck is accomplished as well. But those works had stronger dramatic or comedic hooks, and thus were better able to produce songs that felt like they both belonged within those structures and like they belonged in the theatre. The irritatingly general and one-level writing here does not achieve even that distinction, loaded as it is with parched lyrics ("This is the final round of Russian roulette / Don't smoke that last cigarette," being a typical example), though Melnick turns out a hummable tune for the emphatic title song.

What little depth on offer comes from Alvin, who is as usual wonderful, with her enveloping belt voice nicely capturing Pam's manic personality and complementing the crazed exhaustion that floods her every word and action. Belcon strains a bit at making Phyllis appear cloyingly religious, but is attractively committed to her portrayal. Bolton and Boyd do more nonspecific work but sing well and project plenty of energy. Sandberg's staging, augmented by A.C. Ciulla's grab-bag choreography, and the design (with sets by Charlie Corcoran, costumes by Michael McDonald, and lights by Jeff Croiter and Grant Yeager) are all effective without being even marginally innovative.

The same would be true of the musical as a whole if not for its central premise, which resonates with considerably more urgency than was the case at its premiere at the 2009 New York Musical Theatre Festival. The tightening of the political landscape has led to increasing examples of bureaucrats telling you not only how you should, but how you must act, with restrictions against salt, trans fats, soft drinks, and many other things increasingly common in New York and elsewhere. This musical may deal with one specific vice, but it does hint at the chilling possibilities of what could happen when the irresistible force of government meets the unmovable object of self-interest—and the results are predictably horrifying.

The Last Smoker in America is too wishy-washy to have the nuclear impact it probably should—it comes too close to suggesting that the ends do, in fact, justify the means—but it highlights a simmering discontent in the landscape of the United States that one suspects could well play out in elections big and small in November and beyond. It's unusual that a musical takes on any issue of this nature in such a direct way, and for that Russell and Melnick should be applauded. Still, their statements would go down easier if the show containing them were as determined to be good as it is to be topical.

The Last Smoker in America
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Westside Theatre Upstairs, 407 West 43rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets and current performance schedule: Telecharge

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