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The Road to Qatar!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sarah Stiles, Bill Nolte, James Beaman, Keith Gerchak, and Bruce Warren.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Even the most stalwart champions of that revered axiom, "Truth is stranger than fiction," would agree that the facts behind the new musical The Road to Qatar! are dizzying. The show's writers, Stephen Cole (book and lyrics) and David Krane (music), were approached in 2005 to write a new musical for the Emir of Qatar to celebrate the opening of a major stadium in the tiny country, which is bordered on one side by Saudi Arabia and on all others by the Persian Gulf. For any of us dropped into a similar situation, that would be the most terrifying imaginable foreign territory. What's scarier, however, is that Cole and Krane's chronicle of the whole affair, now playing at the York Theatre at St. Peter's, often seems to be in its own, incomprehensible language.

Specifically, that peculiar dialect that's willing to do or say anything, provided no emotional honesty creeps into the proceedings. This alchemy can work, of course—The Producers and Hairspray were little more than plastic-coated jokiness that somehow evinced some sense of substance. (For that matter, the Bob Hope–Bing Crosby Road to... movies, which at least partially inspired this musical's title, fit into a similar category.) But the creators must have the vision, commitment, and talent to make that imaginary world every bit as real as the one we live in. That Cole and Krane, who have plenty of major credits of their own (Cole The Night of the Hunter, seen at NYMF in 2006; and Krane arrangements for nearly 30 Broadway shows and the films of Chicago and Nine), haven't is why The Road to Qatar! is more dreary than delightful.

The problems begin immediately, when the full five-person cast appears onstage, dressed in full-length Arab robes (the costumes, like the blank-canvas unit set and occasional puppets, are by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case). "This is a story about terrorists!", one bellows. No, corrects another: "This is a story about musical comedy!" After a tap dance (of course), they decide they're both right: "This is a story about musical comedy terrorists!" I'd love to say it gets better than that, but it doesn't.

After we meet the heroes, "two short Jews," composer Jeffrey (Keith Gerchak) and librettist-lyricist Michael (James Beaman)—no, Cole and Krane don't bother to use their real names—the story is already in full swing. The musical's producer, Mansour (Bill Nolte), sweeps them off to Dubai for their first production meeting with him, and his comely assistant and translator Nazirah (Sarah Stiles), and the Emir's Ethel Merman–loving cousin Farid (Bruce Warren). During this meeting, Farid explains that the musical's plot must involve a sultan's son who is unable to leave the palace. "But why?", asks Michael. Nazirah "translates" by screaming the dictum again at the top of her lungs. When Michael presses still further, she repeats even louder, this time pantomiming and squirming around on the floor like a petulant child just told there's no more ice cream.

Having fun yet? From the production meetings (the Arabs naturally hate the entire first draft) to the recording sessions in Bratislava to opening night of the desert-filling spectacle (which we see far too little of to follow), everything in the show is filled with this kind of frying-pan-to-the-head humor. It's all delivered as though every actor is trying to project to the third balcony of a theater five blocks away. The billed director is Phillip George, but beyond the likelihood of "Loudest! Fastest! Funniest!", there's no wit and creativity in the staging to suggest what exactly he directed anyone to do.

The problem isn't just that this drive-by-shooting style of writing and presentation prohibits legitimate comedy—though it does—but that it prevents The Road to Qatar! from attaining the warm intimacy that would best suit it. Nothing could save most of the songs—Farid's paean to musicals is as dreadful as it is predictable; "Good Things Come in Threes," "Give ‘em What They Want," and the rest of the "writing" songs are instantly forgettable; "Nazirah's in London" has an undulating melody, but is an unnecessary crowning moment for someone who's barely a character—but the story of two writers who meet each other and become trusted colleagues and friends under such bizarre circumstances should inspire jokes, lines, and scenes rife with hope, fear, and wonder. None of these qualities is present, even momentarily.

What you get are a lot of gay jokes (including a leotard-wearing choreographer-director-designer) and Jew Jokes, but no recognizable feelings or scope that may paint Michael and Jeffrey's experience as the once-in-a-millennium adventure it is. The singing, against David Caldwell's charming five-man mini-orchestra, is roundly expert. But the performers can't (and don't) create compelling characters in a world this bleeding-Technicolor. It's all blatant and blaring, but lifeless, crying out for the subtlety and variety that even a one-sentence plot synopsis would apparently demand.

The evening's sole moment of respite comes with the musical-within-the-musical's title number, "Aspire" (actually written for the original show). Armed with the requirement that the song simply must contain 10 uses of that word, Michael and Jeffrey craft an inspiring song of such bouncy tunefulness, it will echo in your head for days after you hear it. (It certainly has mine.) "You gotta be big / You gotta be brave / You gotta aspire," the lyrics run. "You gotta reach up / You gotta reach out / You gotta reach higher." The song's creation marks a turning point for Michael and Jeffrey's show and relationship, as well as a reminder that lasting success only comes from pushing yourself beyond others' limited expectations. How much better The Road to Qatar! would have been had Cole and Krane bothered to follow their own advice.

The Road to Qatar!
Through February 27
York Theatre Company at The Theatre at Saint Peter's—Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street
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