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Midnight at the Never Get

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - October 11, 2018

Jeremy Cohen and Sam Bolen
Photo by Carol Rosegg

There's a famous, oft-exhibited photo of Julius, the still-there predominantly gay bar in the Village, from 1966. The bar's crowded; every customer is white, male, and in a suit and skinny tie; and every facial expression seems to say, Please don't take my picture. This strange mixture of camaraderie and revelry on the one hand, and panic and paranoia on the other, also informs Midnight at the Never Get, the new mini-musical with book, music, and lyrics by Mark Sonnenblick at the York. Sonnenblick and Sam Bolen, who co-conceived and plays one of the two leads, thrust us into a not-that-long-ago world where rights and attitudes taken for granted today were met with revulsion, if not arrest and/or violence. It's an instructive visit, bolstered by a striking little production and some very-worth-hearing songs. And it still needs a bit of work.

Is it a musical? A concert? It's both, a nightclub act with intermittent narration and book scenes, and a cast of two, plus a late-arriving somebody whom it would be a spoiler to say too much about. Christopher and Justin Swader's set and Jamie Roderick's lighting elegantly conjure up the Never Get (its odd name is only-sort-of explained), a hidden cabaret in the back room of an unlicensed bar in the West Village in the '60s, the sort you had to sneak into and out of, and sudden flashing lights meant Get out, the cops are on the way. We're also treated to something a club like the Never Get could never have gotten, a five-piece band behind the piano. Adam Podd conducts, swingingly, and did the period-accurate arrangements.

There's just one act on the bill tonight, and that's Trevor (Bolen), taking us on a tour of his past and his complicated relationship with the piano player, Arthur (Jeremy Cohen). It seems Trevor is also in heaven, and ecstatic, because Arthur has just died and they'll soon be reunited. Which makes no sense — if he's awaiting Arthur, who's the guy at the piano? Nevertheless, Arthur's on hand to reenact their tortured history, which dovetails with the early rise of gay liberation, then extends past Stonewall and, diminishingly, into the AIDS crisis. The emphasis, though, is on the late '60s, when two men could pursue a discreet romance if they were very, very careful.

And careful describes Arthur more than it does Trevor. The latter escaped a dreadful farm-and-fundamentalist childhood in Idaho, which Arthur, as a way of wooing him, turns into "Wallace Falls" — he's a songwriter, a gifted one. Sonnenblick's cabaret pastiches are clever and convincing, evoking the likes of John Wallowitch and Michael Brown; if you don't know these gentlemen, Google them. His music, if not bursting with melody, is pleasingly structured and combines traditional form with the occasional unexpected detour. And his lyrics are better: "Wallace Falls" ("You spend half your life inside the chapel walls/ You spend the other half in overalls") and several other comic numbers are really funny. The ballads are also quite fine, especially lyrically, and at least one, "A Little Less to Lose," could be a standard. His language isn't perfect: "Gay" wasn't widely used in that context during those years, and while "multiplex" functions as half of a neat rhyme, there were no multiplexes. "To die for" wasn't current, either. But anybody capable of "I prefer daydreams/ I prefer hopes/ I prefer satin sheets/ In rented suites/ With scented soaps," we want to hear more from.

And then there's the book. Well, Sonnenblick is no slouch at dialogue, and he's created some provocative situations. Trevor's and Arthur's opposing gay-lib views are both valid: Trevor wants to march and make a noise, Arthur wants to be charming and nonconfrontational and win the other side over by conforming and infiltrating. Yet he has his radical ideas, too. He insists, for instance, that Trevor, when performing at the Never Get, use the proper, I-love-him pronouns he wrote — a major, attention-getting risk at the time. And when Columbia Records offers them a contract, he won't let Trevor switch to I-love-her, even if it kills the deal. Character contradictions, in short, begin to appear, and they're unresolvable. Also, as in more and more musicals (I'm looking at you, Come from Away), too much of the story is narrated rather than dramatized. Characters we'd like to meet — Jack, Trevor's militant friend whose activism pisses Arthur off, and Sister Etcetera, the cross-dressing club owner who sounds fascinating — are only talked about.

And the central relationship, as it progresses, makes less sense and becomes less something to root for. When Arthur lets out at Trevor with a cruel, surprising insult, the audience gasps. By the time he moves to L.A. to pursue a songwriting career, we don't like him anymore. Which leaves Trevor to rattle on with more introspective narration and imagine several alternative realities; we'd like to know which one is real, and we never find out.

Bolen, in a suave red tuxedo jacket and bow tie (Vanessa Leuck did the apt costumes), has just the good-but-not-great voice you'd expect Trevor to have; he might tone down the character's stereotypical flailing wrists and hip-shaking a tad, and he keeps Trevor's emotions at 9 when 6 would do. Maybe that's Max Friedman's direction, which tends to play to the back of the house. But Cohen, playing a love interest who wanders from caring to reprehensible and back again, keeps his demeanor suitably reined in as Arthur would, until he explodes, and he tickles some mean ivories. Jon J. Peterson, as that mysterious third character who isn't even mentioned in the program, is briefly excellent.

There's a lot to like about Midnight at the Never Get — it focuses on relatively recent but oft-ignored social history, it produces sweet sounds from a biggish band, and, most of all, it exposes us to someone who could be a major theatrical songwriting talent. You just wish Sonnenblick had devoted as much care to character development and storytelling as he did to music and lyrics. A common malady in musicals, but it's frustrating when the material's this promising.

Midnight at the Never Get
Through November 4
York Theatre Company, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix