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Whatever Man
part of
The New York Musical Theatre Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Colin Hanlon and Kristin Maloney.
Photo by Julian Rad.

It's usually preferable that a musical have some intimate relationship with its title, but Benjamin Strouse's new show playing at the 45th Street Theatre as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival demonstrates why that can sometimes by a catastrophic mistake. Whatever Man is so apathetic in word, music, and look that it can't even generate enough energy to be an outright snoozer - it's a shrug through and through.

This is surprising only because one would think that even a modestly talented composer-lyricist-librettist would be able to inject a musical about superheroes with enough fun to cause it to leap tall buildings in a single bound. But Strouse has crafted a largely moribund evening from what could be an interesting idea: that self-actualization attained via therapy can be just as formidable a weapon as stopping time or destroying criminals with a thought.

The man who has to learn this, Charlie (Colin Hanlon), is a well-meaning loser who agrees to group therapy to help ease mounting long-relationship tensions with his live-in girlfriend, Anna (Kristin Maloney). The group is full of kindly kooks all hoping to get well, but none is stranger than Gary (Paolo Montalban), who's as silent as he is unemployed and yet can knock people down from yards away just by looking at them. It turns out he's from another planet, and that just his presence on Earth is exposing it to the evil being, Singularity, who longs to rule the universe. Thank goodness that Mr. Perfect (David Andrew Anderson), "the guardian of space and time" and Singularity's mortal enemy, has found Gary first - unless Singularity has already secretly arrived.

It sounds exciting, and it should be - but Strouse prevents it at every turn. Leave aside, for the moment, the small matter of therapy sessions generally being inward-looking and action-free, thus crippling half the scenes from the outset. Strouse also doesn't possess an effortless flair for comedy - he's written dozens of lines that sound sort of like jokes, but that lack any original or clever spark that might elicit even cautious chuckles. When many of these pile up in a single scene, the sound of silence where there should be snickers is nothing short of deafening.

Then there are the songs. They're moderately attractive in the easy-listening and jazz-nightclub veins (though there's a brief descent into techno). But their yawning off-handedness and tendency to fade in, peter out, and barely make melodic or plot points in between renders them useless as theatre numbers. They recall the basic, blasé style and forgettable utility of the songs Harry Connick, Jr., wrote for Thou Shalt Not way back in 2001. Connick, however, was a relative Broadway newcomer; Strouse, whose father is Charles Strouse of Bye Bye Birdie and Annie fame, is less easily excused.

Hilary Adams has directed with verve that matches the writing, and the performers do not frequently do better. A particular disappointment is Hanlon, who's usually a reliable Everyman guy-next-door type (and proved it most recently in the Fringe Festival production of How Now, Dow Jones), but here just vanishes into Ken Larson's suggestive scenery as he has nothing to ingratiate us to him. The only performer who seems to be having a good time (and in turn delivers one to us) is Philip Hoffman, who brings a pleasing forthrightness to the therapy group's procedure-pushing leader.

Hoffman's success in the role suggests, in fact, that Whatever Man is far from hopeless, and that Strouse could get his conflating of emotional awareness and world-saving courage to work if he tackled it with gusto. But right now, he's much closer to Gary's description of himself: "a force for 'good enough.'" Whether audience members will be able to stay awake long enough to realize this is anyone's guess.

Whatever Man
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival

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