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I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Renée Elise Goldsberry
Photo by Joan Marcus.

It can be easy to forget that 40 wasn't always the new 20, but not when you're watching the Encores! Off-Center production of I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road. This mounting of Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford's 1978 musical, which is playing at City Center through this weekend, has tons of things going for it—not least the ceaselessly tuneful score and a gorgeous central performance from Renée Elise Goldsberry. But a charming timelessness that translates into a riveting relevance for 2013 is not among them.

This, by the way, is in many respects a good thing. After all, the prevailing story in Cryer's book (she also wrote the lyrics) is about one-time recording sensation Heather Jones, who gave up music for soap-opera superstardom and is now hoping to rekindle her singing career with a comeback cabaret in New York. Which is being arranged by her chauvinistic, relationship-challenged manager, Joe. Who also used to be her lover. And all this is unfolding during rehearsals the day of the show. Which just happens to be Heather's 39th birthday.

Joe's concerns about Heather's concert derive primarily from his belief in and adherence to traditional gender roles. Heather wants to sing only songs about female independence, with every ballad layered with regret and every up-tempo bearing an ironic twist. But when she gets too empowered, he gets turned off and insists that her audience will react the same way. His idea of a perfect fit for her is "In a Simple Way I Love You," Heather's earliest hit, which does little beyond promoting unyielding, unquestioning fidelity and support forever. Decades of dissatisfaction and a nasty divorce, however, have since cured Heather of any such illusion. And when Joe likes one of her most defiant compositions, "Put in a Package and Sold," about standing up to men that try to hold her back, it's only because he thinks she's sexy when she's mad.

Such callousness does still earn laughs by way of Frederick Weller's lounge-lizardy portrayal of the greasily oblivious Joe, but it has an unavoidably schematic feel today. If Weller imparted a bit more sympathy it might be easier to see Joe as a person rather than a caricature, but it couldn't mask the fact that Joe exists only for Heather to rebuff and then respond to in song. Even over a running time of less than 90 minutes, this is a gimmick that does not stay fresh for long, and does not offer much in the way of a dramatic payoff.

This forces the songs, all of which are sung diegetically, to carry even more weight, but they're up to the challenge. Ford's music unashamedly embodies late-1970s pop, but despite heavily highlighting percussion and electric guitar it does so honestly enough that it always seems to belong in the theater more than on the radio. The opener, "Natural High," is aptly named, and gets things off to a soaring start from which they do not descend. Most every song is tinged with comedy that reinforces the barriers Heather is trying to break, but even the few times things turn truly serious—a reprise of "In a Simple Way I Love You" for Heather's pining guitarist (Jason Rabinowitz), or the ramp up to the finale with three soul-searching numbers that investigate going into and coming out of heartbreak—you're routinely left more in the light than the dark.

Not that Golsberry would ever allow you to end up anywhere else. Though she's shimmered in high-profile musicals (The Color Purple) and plays (Good People), rarely has she been afforded the kind of dynamite showcase she is here. Beyond the fact that Heather never leaves the stage and is featured prominently in most every song (few of which are lightweight or easy), she also crafts a truly compelling character that is forever balancing herself between frustration and acceptance.

Goldsberry wholeheartedly embraces the more combative elements of Heather's personality, but applies an ingratiating sunniness atop it that explains exactly who this woman is and why she's gotten as far as she has. Her elegant, platinum belt is replete with sweet strength and just right for the material, without displaying even a hint of diminishing edge. You always believe, just as you have to, that Heather is singing directly from the center of her being. And during her more introspective moments (particularly the haunting, a capella "Lonely Lady" at evening's end), you can't help but feel she's piercing into your own as well.

Neither the rest of the company, which includes Christina Sajous and Jennifer Sanchez as Heather's backup singers, nor director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall (doing largely understated, effective work) or musical director Chris Fenwick, quite matches Goldsberry's high-flying example. But they're all well burnished and contribute to a result that demonstrates, along with last week's superlative one-night-only presentation of Violet, that Encores! Off-Center has real potential for rekindling Off-Broadway love affairs of years past.

I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road represents what the larger-scale Encores! used to be exclusively about: worth hearing, but not necessarily worth seeing in full. Derek McLane's set, which swaths a band platform in pseudo-psychedelic tapestries, is perhaps the perfect embodiment for why this show couldn't be revived in the traditional sense: It's colorful and animated to the extreme, but too locked in its era to satisfy as more than a cobweb-clotted period piece. Cryer and Ford created a sterling musical for its time, but through their work Marshall, Goldsberry, and the rest are above all proving that time is where it most belongs.

I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road
Through July 27
New York City Center Mainstage, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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