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The Memory Show

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Leslie Kritzer and Catherine Cox.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

If the leads' singing and acting ability, raw stage presence, and intense chemistry with each other were all any musical needed, then The Memory Show would be the runaway success of the year. With Catherine Cox and Leslie Kritzer at its center, Sara Cooper and Zach Redler's new endeavor for Transport Group, playing at the Duke on 42nd Street, is lacking for neither star wattage nor projected humanity. Even so, too many of the necessary synapses aren't firing.

As you may have guessed from the work's title, that's at least a somewhat apt metaphor. For The Memory Show is about the difficulty of keeping family bonds strong when the brain begins slowing down. A 62-year-old mother (Cox) has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's, and her daughter (Kritzer) has moved back home to take care of her.

That's essentially it. Cooper's book and lyrics introduce a few additional flourishes, mostly surrounding the nature and meaning of the duo's departed husband and father (the daughter is the one of the two who remembers him far more favorably) and the mother's frequently restated, and more than a little threatening, promise to reveal what she insists is a devastating secret.

But minor plot machinations such as these are not the point; the writers' exploration of the two women's bond, on the other hand, is. As outlined in dialogue, and especially as acted, Cooper's dissection of that relationship is a potent one.

Cox is excellent in her portrayal of a woman who can no longer trust her own memories, and conveys every drop of the oppressiveness her situation rains down upon her. Though mom is brash and bossy from her first scene, set in a doctor's office (and constructed around a song called "Who's the President of the United States"—a question she can't answer), Cox builds the frazzle and the frustration gradually, so that it often seems as if you are indeed witnessing her emotional disintegration before your eyes.

Though Kritzer is best known for her musical comedy roles, she displays a deft touch throughout. She makes powerfully clear how much the daughter must strive to keep her own sanity while watching her mother fade away. Kritzer also movingly depicts the battle between the two halves of the character's soul: the exasperated adult whose life is being trampled upon, and the lonely child who just wants back the mother she used to know.

The scenes and songs that focus most directly on the mother and daughter's joint travails are by far the strongest, and the two performers relish and greatly benefit from the presence of a sufficiently fierce adversary. The evening's highlight, the mother's "I'm Unlovable," is a simple recounting of the tortured marriage and family history that has brought them both to this point. But Cox delivers it with such lip-smacking, vicious abandon, her declarations almost seem to launch with a sheer force all their own.

Alas, that moment is an outlier. Though Cooper's scenes maintain a firm emotional anchor and a consistent through line, the score has much more trouble doing the same. Redler's music is pointed without being sharp, and fails to establish a melodic language that rings with anything other than the disjointed echoes of a pallid Stephen Sondheim homage. The three best numbers are all Kritzer's, but dealing as they do with the perils of online dating, the man who got away, and cleaning a toilet, they can't further the relationship we're supposed to care about most.

Cox's songs prevent you from crossing over entirely over into revue territory, but as they deal almost exclusively with her illness, they're at best limited listening and rarely attractive. Worse yet, with the exception of mother's "I'm Unlovable" tirade, the progress of her disease is charted almost exclusively through the book. If you're hoping for a complex musical texture that subtly but persuasively confuses more of the past with the present as mom drifts further away, that's not what you get.

Without it, it's tough to get a good grasp on what you're supposed to be watching or why. Joe Calarco has directed with a palpable urgency, and Brian Prather's half-dissolved living room set (lit, with ghostly panache, by Chris Lee) properly registers as a locale that has at best one corner in reality. But these qualities need to be realized in and elevated by the songs, which instead seem to be intruding on an already well-adjusted narrative.

Musicals, after all, only really land when they desperately need to sing—something neither Cooper nor Redler convinces you of. Cox and Kritzer do all they can to make every line and lyric seem essential, and that amounts to a lot; in The Memory Show, there's no question that you witness a remarkable chunk of the mother and daughter's souls be bared. It just never seems to happen through song.

The Memory Show
Through May 18
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Running Time: 90 minutres with no intermission
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