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Hot and Sweet

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Hot and Sweet is not, as its author Barbara Schottenfeld might insist, a musical about an all-girl band heating up America while the boys are off fighting World War II. No, this show, which concludes its run today at the Theatre at St. Clement's as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, is really a romance. Schottenfeld, you see, is hopelessly in love with subplots.

Among them: Honeytones lead singer and financial backer Blossom (Rebecca Eichenberger) is a former stripper who's funded the band via a loan shark; the group's surly manager, Lou (William Parry), is a failed trumpet player who wants the Honeytones to achieve the success he didn't; brilliant saxophonist-singer Naleen (Lea Michele) falls for the group's young arranger (Andy Sandberg), with catastrophic results; trombonist Lana (Elizabeth Inghram) has a son and a secret that could threaten the band's bookings; trumpeter extraordinaire Beats (Jami Dauber) is too fat to fit into a group Lou wants to pack with lovelies.

This is, by no means, a comprehensive rundown of the subsidiary happenings in this meandering meltdown of a musical. In spending so much time defining so many individual Honeytones and the peripheral men, Schottenfeld doesn't allow sufficient time for traversing the territory that inspired the show's title: Blossom wants the Honeytones to play only sweet, easily marketable arrangements of songs; the band's real director, trombonist Adele (Katie Finneran), wants everything as hot and jazzy as possible.

That tug of war, less between contrasting musical styles than between love and sex, is ideal for exploring in this format, and might have made a terrific musical. But with distractions like a framing device about two older women (Mimi Bensinger and Margaret Goodman) accepting a "women in jazz" award, Blossom's romance with gangster Gino (Ray McLeod), and Lou's unsuccessful hook-ups with Lana, how can anyone - especially Schottenfeld - focus on the channeling of sexual desire through boisterous brass?

If Hot and Sweet is ever to burn up a theater, it must be clarified or trimmed: Two and a half hours is too long for a brickbat-strewn musical-history lesson directed as loosely as John Driver has here. Schottenfeld could start by refashioning the endless succession of talky scenes communicating the details of the 12 competing storylines into a sharper, more direct, more musical book that will focus the characters - and the audience - on whatever's most important.

That's not necessarily the songs. Despite superb orchestrations from Jim Abbott and Mike Morris that capture the crucial caramel of the era's Big Bands, Schottenfeld's songs don't often get your blood pumping. A flimsy amalgam of character spots ("While They Keep Shooting, We Keep Tooting!", about the Honeytones keeping the musical peace at home; the faux-fierce "I'll Never Face the Facts" for a resigned Blossom descending again to burlesque depths) and diegetic numbers (the best are the hotly styled "Jam Ain't Made in the Kitchen" and "One Kiss Ago"), the score screams '40s without a whisper of the end-of-the-world pulse of the era's better offerings.

The cast is generally more even, with Finneran an appropriately heated center, Michele a spirited sidelight, and Parry and McLeod gruffly filling out their thankless roles. Eichenberger, however, overplays Blossom, and is never believable as either a stripper or a "rich bitch with a music itch." (This might be intentional; Schottenfeld never seems to want us to side with sweet.) Most of the other Honeytones are energetic players and perfunctory actors who are probably wise to keep their mouths shut when not blowing their lungs out.

There are even two I can't recall having a single spoken moment in the spotlight, but who nonetheless make a big impression: Laura Dreyer and Stephanie Long, as down-center woodwind artistes Peggy and Juice, respectively play three and four instruments with a quick-change panache and stolid intensity that instantly identify them as perhaps the two most important instrumentalists in the 28-person company.

If Schottenfeld is intent on allotting so much time to everyone else, maybe she could introduce us to them as well? Their story must be at least as interesting as the battle between prospective first-chair tenor sax players - certainly, enough of Hot and Sweet is already devoted to that.

Hot and Sweet
Theatre at St. Clements, 423 West 46th Street
Thu, Sep. 21 at 8pm
Sun, Sep. 24 at 3pm
Wed, Sep. 27 at 5pm
Fri, Sep. 29 at 5pm
Fri, Sep. 29 at 9pm
Sat, Sep. 30 at 5pm
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