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Floyd and Clea Under The Western Sky

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Statistics about holiday depression would seem to preclude opening a country music-themed musical in early December. But that hasn't stopped Playwrights Horizons, where you'll now find Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky, a show so about wallowing in (and creating) misery that suicide hotline numbers should be distributed with every Playbill. So bleak are even the first half's most hopeful moments, it seems this unassuming show doesn't know when to quit.

Thank goodness. Once composer-lyricist-librettist David Cale and composer Jonathan Kreisberg vacate the pity party, the show becomes an uplifting and - dare it be said? - fun contemporary fable.

True, there's not much original in the rise and fall of Clea Johnson (Mary Faber) and the fall and rise of Floyd Duffner (Cale). The message is, basically, to remember your roots and never let go of your dreams, ideas that have powered sagas mammoth and miniscule about show-biz for as long as it's been the business there's no business like. So when it's revealed almost immediately that Floyd is a gifted, singing-songwriting alcoholic and Clea is a Mormon and an underutilized musical genius, you can feel your eyes roll back into your head.

And since much of the early show must be spent chronicling not only their individual troubles but the troubles and tantalizing successes they find together, there's a lot to slog through. Floyd's drunken farewell performance in Texas. His subsequent move to Montana to drink or freeze himself to death. Clea's recognition of his talent and her mostly thwarted attempts to clean him up and get him on the path to success. Her own subsequent journey to Los Angeles in pursuit of a name of her own. All of which, by the way, occurs under an unsettling, disjointed honky-tonk funereal air.

But the endless dirges masquerading as bubblegum bluegrass and alt-western pop eventually give way to a surprisingly potent love story about Floyd and Clea's curious connection. The show's final third, in which the prodigal songstress sets about reestablishing her life with her awkward muse, is even honestly touching in a way the show's pandering earliest scenes never predict. These scenes even shatter the tedium instilled by the Lincoln Tunnel-at-rush-hour pacing plaguing much of Joe Calarco's direction; this most hackneyed of plot twists, strangely, brings out the best in everyone.

Faber is especially good, displaying a sterling singing voice throughout, but during the emotionally wrought denouement displaying serious acting chops as well. It's crucial that you believe Clea has superstar potential from the outset, and Faber delivers on that. But when Clea becomes polluted with emotional reticence and a fear of the normality she once coveted, Faber becomes even more convincing as a plummeting public personality in her final death throes. Clea's troubles might have been ripped right from the covers of supermarket tabloids, but Faber makes them all pointedly real.

The same can't easily be said of Cale: Floyd makes a related but contrasting journey, from success to failure and back, but never in Cale's performance can you glimpse the brilliance that could grip a boozed-up barroom, let alone a whole country (as eventually, inevitably happens). Seeming less a tortured artist than an extra-nebbishy Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm, Cale brings a weeping-willow walk and a wailing-whiny voice (which sounds more drenched in phlegm than bourbon) to Floyd that make him a deflating presence in a show that needs all the fresh air it can get.

For better or worse, the songs are right in keeping with this persona, a combination of soulfully solipsistic ballads and flinty uptempos that even Faber's steel can't get to spark. If the numbers generally improve as the characters' lots do, even the best songs - Floyd's ironic "A Simple Life," and the pair of catchy duets that close the show - aren't especially distinctive, even as played by the fine four-piece band that graces an upstage performing alcove in David Korins's attractively confused Lubbock-to-Great Falls set.

Strange as it seems to advise ignoring a musical's music, that's the best way to enjoy Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky. Music may be the art that brings its titular duo to the brink of despair and eventually to salvation, but the show only takes flight when they learn there are more important things in life. That message probably isn't what Cale and Kreisberg intended, but it's what they got, and when it's out in full force it's more effective than a handful of antidepressants any day.

Floyd and Clea Under The Western Sky
Through December 17
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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