Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

part of
The New York International Fringe Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Donna Bullock
Photo by Dixie Sheridan.

Not all flop musicals are mud-caked gems. Most are much more like Platinum, the restless, mindless, and hopeless Gary William Friedman–Will Holt–Bruce Vilanch (yes, that one) tuner that Ben West has revised and directed for this year's New York International Fringe Festival. In telling the story of one singer working to restart her long-dormant career and another trying to forestall his own downward slide, the only thing it conclusively proves is that some shows fail for very good reasons.

West has committed himself to preserving such shows in the theatregoing public's mind. Last year's Fringe Festival highlighted his revisal of another classic bomb, How Now, Dow Jones, and his program bio notes that his next project is a reading of 1947's long-forgotten Barefoot Boy with Cheek. West's modus operandi seems to be to cut away every ounce of fat from the book and score to reveal whatever latent value a show has, and then build as lean a new evening as possible on top of that foundation. (Platinum, like How Now, Dow Jones, runs about 75 minutes in one act with just a handful of actors; both started as full-cast, two-act shows.)

The problem is that, in doing so, West doesn't use a scalpel so much as a chainsaw, which means muscle and bone are as likely as flab to fall away. Shows like these that barely worked in the first place (assuming they did at all) usually don't need less of anything—they need more: structure, common sense, care, and so on. There's a reason that most of the musicals today's Broadway producers and directors rethink downward are big hits of the past: Strong material can withstand weird, reductive, or flat-out misguided reinterpretations in ways that barely-there writing can't.

All you get from West's version are vague impressions of plot. It's 1976, and we're in a Hollywood recording studio: Fifty-year-old movie musical queen of yesteryear Lila Halliday (Donna Bullock) hopes for a comeback, cooling-down 31-year-old rocker Dan Riley (Jay Wilkison) is creatively blocked and tumbling rapidly from the top of the charts, and their producer Jeff Rollins (Bruce Sabath) is poised to wash his hands of both of them. Because Lila wants strong contemporary material for her album and Dan needs respectability to cushion his cascade, they end up falling for each other and alternately ruining and bolstering each other's ambitions.

But, well, how can you tell that story in 75 minutes, with 13 songs and two additional characters—backup singer turned disco darling Crystal Mason (Sarah Litzsinger) and looking-for-his-big-break songwriter Jamie Bradbury (Wayne Wilcox)—need attention as well? Simply put, you can't. Lila and Dan conduct their entire romance offstage, with only occasional smiles, embracings, and duettings to hint at their love life. When Crystal "steals" Lila's signature song, "Destiny" (written for her to sing in a World War II movie), it's in a disconnected scene that doesn't even pretend to mesh with the rest of the action. Weeks and months, and highs and lows, pass in a cock of the head (which you'll be doing a lot while trying to follow things).

This is not the fault of the cast—everyone does what they can. Bullock (the replacement Mother in the original Broadway Ragtime and Lucy in A Class Act) looks deliciously believable as a been-there-done-that ingénue, but isn't the naturally effusive presence Lila requires. She must scream "star" from her first entrance, and Bullock doesn't—she reads as glamorously professional, but no more, and that's not enough. (Her lovely, silver-tinged belt is also a bit underpowered for these songs, even with only musical director Fran Minarik as the piano accompaniment.) Wilcox and Wilkison are game, but their roles allow them to barely make one impression between them; Sabath's blandly gruff take on Jeff is about the only choice. Litzsinger sparkles when allowed to be her brassy, bossy self, but the role allows her few opportunities to unleash her top-caliber talent.

Not that the show shows off anyone to much advantage, though a few pleasant songs do float their way to the top. Most are for Lila: Her opening one-two punch, "Nothing But" and "Back With a Beat," are insinuating glimpses at dreams past and future; the plaintive-pleading "Destiny" sounds like a long-ago hit in its original incarnation (the disco "remix" is less convincing); and "Too Many Mirrors" and "This One's For Me" let Lila demonstrate that outer charms may dim, but the heart itself never does. Many of the filler songs are just that and not memorable in their own right—of the numbers West has preserved, at least there are no outright travesties.

Nor, unfortunately, are there categorical successes. Platinum, which opened on Broadway in 1978 and survived less than a month, is a true also-ran: It originated outside New York with the title Sunset, and was tried again under that same title Off-Broadway (also unsuccessfully) in 1983. If a show fails three times with such adored luminaries as Alexis Smith and Tammy Grimes at its center, what chance does it have for redemption with Bullock—or anyone today? West is to be admired for taking a chance, but not all gambles pay off. Neither does this show, in any incarnation—and the chief accomplishment of West's version is proving exactly why that is.

VENUE #12: Lucille Lortel Theatre
Thu 19 @ 11:30 Fri 20 @ 2 Sat 21 @ 9:15
Tickets online at FringeNYC Tickets

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