Score one more joyful point against "Bigger is Better." While oversized productions either close (Ragtime) or scale down to dissatisfaction (The Scarlet Pimpernel), Off-B'way musicals follow another standard. For the benchmark of small, enduring musicals, visit The Fantasticks on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village.
Stars in Your Eyes has many similarities to Fantasticks besides the small cast (seven), minuscule stage, simple multifunctional set, and ear-pleasing seemingly unamplified sound possible now only in a small theater. The musical also has a core in fantasy or fable, a tone established from the start by James Stovall as The Man in the Moon, who addresses the audience directly and, with a grin and sweeping gesture of his arm, intimates that he's beaming. He's a benevolent spirit who plans on doing good. This will be a feel-good show.
The concept can either float on a somnambulistic cloud or spiral down to a clunking thud - depending on the charm of whoever is playing the guiding role. One feather too swishy or one wink too self-consciously, and the idea goes flatter than a baking soufflé during a heavy metal concert. It's to Stovall's credit that he gives the show its lightness and charm. He pops in and out of the show in amusing bit roles as, for example, an old lady, a young ballerina, or a snobby playboy, with a mere costume prop to indicate his identity. The audience enjoys the conspiracy of make believe because Stovall is so charismatic. He moves well and gets to display an impressive singing voice.
The basic story by Chip Meyrelles, who wrote book, music, and lyrics, is so slight as to edge on dullness. The plot's sole thread is whether or not a brilliant 30-something science professor will marry the wrong woman, a suspense line that doesn't cause much tension. We know from the moment that dance teachers Annie Patterson (Barbara Walsh) and Helen Stevens (Donna Lynne Champlin nicely standing in for Heather MacRae at this performance) wish upon shooting stars, that each will be paired with one of the two males in the show. We know when this will happen: just before the final curtain. How it happens is what makes a romantic musical delightful ... and that's where this one doesn't fly.
Helen wishes for a balding older man with a hairy back to fulfill her caveman fantasy. Hmmm - in the next scene we do meet a balding gent (John Braden - who gets one of the loveliest ballads in the show and sings it appealingly). But other than a minimal exchange where he brings her a cauliflower when she'd rather have ice-cream, there's no seduction scene. I have to compare this with the masterful Cabaret where the gift of a pineapple becomes a focal love song.
As Annie, Walsh has a difficult role and handles it with serious strength. The musical is set in the sixties - not the real sixties, but a nineties cartoon-like version of the sixties, where women waited passively while men made up their minds. Walsh is a disillusioned (we don't know why) and lonely single who has adopted an abandoned teenage girl Jo (Christy Carlson Romano). She wishes for a compatible mate. Jo is an astronomy buff; her science teacher, Mr. Barclay (David M. Lutken), is engaged to a B-movie stereotype of the rich girl. Walsh plays it credibly, her lovely voice enriching the show. We care about her and want her to win. But it's the sixties, so she's a passive heroine. The man does the real deciding here.
And what a man! David M. Lutken conveys whole pages of feelings with small gestures. He sings well, moves well, and is a worthy prize. Competing with Walsh for Lutken's affection is the delightful and multi-talented Christa Moore whose comic numbers defining her character's vast cash attributes and desires are highlights. Everybody gets at least one nice song, including teenage Jo (Romano) in a scene of self-doubt. But she never gets the satisfying follow-up number that shows her transformation into a tough champion who fights anti-feminist sentiments at the formerly all-male academy she attends.
Now for the score: here's a riddle. How many ballads fit into a two-hour musical? If it's more than four, the answer is too many. Mayrelles writes pretty ballads but what the show needs is more uptempo numbers that do the same work: reflecting character and/or moving the story (if there were one) forward. His song lyrics are mostly good (the few comedy songs aren't really witty or clever) and he thankfully writes real melodies - his greatest strength, but too many of those ballads are in three-quarter (waltz) time, even for a retro view of the sixties.
Director Gabriel Barre working with choreographer Jennifer Paulson Lee teases us with itsy-bitsy dances, leaving one hungry for one out-and-out dance sequence that triumphs over the small stage and uses the evident talent. Pamela Scofield's costumes looked right for the period and moved well, especially Walsh's appropriate shirtwaist dresses and Moore's flashy pink things (a little mini for those days, but the more of Moore revealed, the better!) James Youmans' simple set didn't overwhelm, and Tim Hunter's lighting worked better after the first number (a grade-school level intro that nearly sank the show before it began.)
Stars sparkles in spots. The cast is uniformly excellent. If you are a musical theater fan, you'll find a lot here to love.
Stars In Your Eyes: Produced by Tom Wirtshafter/Planetearth Partners, Inc. Book, Music, and Lyrics by Chip Meyrelles. Directed by Gabriel Barre. Choreography by Jennifer Paulson Lee. Set Design by James Youmans. Costume Design by Pamela Scofield. Lighting Design by Tim Hunter. Sound Design by Brian Ronan. Musical direction, arrangements, and onstage performance by Georgia Stitt (piano) with Audrey Terry (bass, cello).
With: James Stovall (The Man in the Moon), Barbara Walsh (Annie Patterson), David M. Lutken (Reginald Barclay), Christa Moore (Leigh Hunt-Smith), John Braden (Charles Swanson), Donna Lynne Champlin (Helen Stevens), Christy Carlson Romano (Jo Jensen).
Theater: The Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, Greenwich Village.
Schedule: Tuesday through Friday at 8, Saturday at 2 and 8, Sunday at 3 and 7.
Tickets: $49.50 all performances. Call 212/239-6200
Audience: Any age; no nudity and minimal profanity.