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Red Eye of Love

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kevin Pariseau with Katie Hagen and Katie Chung
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Take The Threepenny Opera, swap out the classically idiosyncratic Kurt Weill–Bertolt Brecht score for one steeped in the American musical comedy tradition, and then drench the entire thing in bacon grease and you might get close to the amusing but woefully undercooked satire that is Red Eye of Love, the latest production of Amas Musical Theatre, at the Dicapo Opera Theatre.

An adaptation of Arnold Weinstein's 1961 play of the same title, by Weinstein and his then-director, John Wulp, but with new music composed by Sam Davis after Weinstein's death in 2005, the show is about as mixed up as steak tartare during an earthquake—and rather less nutritious. Like Threepenny, it's a caustic and cynical examination of class warfare, though this one is set in a New York City (and United States) that's more mythical, if not archetypal, than recognizable.

The same can be said of its characters, who more or less represent the divisions in society today, as well. Those would be O.O. Martinas (Kevin Pariseau), the one-percenter who's acquired his dubious fortune by devising and running an ever-expanding Macy's-style department store that sells nothing but meat; Wilmer Flange (Josh Grisetti), the poor but enterprising schlub who adores the fantasy of movies and dreams of earning his living by making dolls capable of getting sick; and Selma Chargesse (Alli Mauzey), the iffy-class dancer who can't decide whom she loves most.

She has plenty of time to try to figure it out, too, as the action unfolds over a period of time that apparently covers a period from the 1930s to the present day, even though none of the characters except for one couple's son ever ages: An economic depression, an economic boom, and a war are among the world-changing events that plague the trio as they're trying sort themselves out, and that make no impression whatsoever because the show itself is not sure what its point is supposed to be.

Alli Mauzey and Josh Grisetti
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Rather than being an incisive tract à la the kind Brecht favored, a time-twisting picaresque in the Love Life or Hallelujah, Baby! mold, or even a goodhearted romp of the Of Thee I Sing variety, Red Eye of Love tries to have it all ways, and manages to hang on to nothing. The songs are gleefully generic toe-tappers that are well accompanied by dual pianists Greg Jarrett and Roberto Sinha, and have by-rote mini-showstopper choreography (from Lainie Sakakura and Alex Sanchez) to match, and come closest to coming alive when they stick nearest to show-biz pointlessness.

The endless opening number ("Good Old O.O."), the first-act-finale-minded "Red White and Blue," the gossip-tuned "The Word on the Street," and even a lengthy pre-intermission meat ballet (with adventurous, lip-smacking costumes by designer Martha Bromelmeier) seem more calculated effect than narrative necessity. They're sung and danced with consummate professionalism, but even the prodigious talent of the ensemble members—particularly Tracie Franklin, a gifted comedienne with a thrilling voice—isn't enough to elevate everything else, too.

Not even the leads can do that. Pariseau avoids the temptation to go for over-the-top capitalist evil with O.O., whereas Grisetti goes Hippodrome broad with his own instincts—choices that might work if each was playing the other's character, but that prevent sympathy from developing even within the highly stylized world that director Ted Sperling (best known as an accomplished musical director of many Broadway tuners) is just barely able to hold together with the help of Robert Indiana's whimsical bargain-storybook sets and Matthew Richards's lights. Satire of this sort demands sharpness, and neither Grisetti nor Pariseau has enough of it to land the jokes or the underlying commentary.

Only Mauzey, justly acclaimed for her turn as the lunatic ex-girlfriend in the 2008 musical Cry-Baby, finds the proper blend of seriousness and silliness. Her Selma is obviously aware, on both a personal and a global level, of what's at stake, but even her rank opportunism can't mask the desperation beneath her Kewpie-doll exterior. She's clawing to the top, because she knows she, like everyone else, will drown if she doesn't end up there, and Mauzey makes you feel just how high the stakes are.

That's exactly what's missing from the rest of Red Eye of Love: the concrete sense that any of this actually matters. There's nothing wrong with doing a show just for fun, but taking on subjects like economic inequality, social justice, and the supposed illusion of upward mobility in a capitalist economy impart de facto weight that the writers need to find a way to deal with, and neither Wulp, Davis, nor the late Weinstein have been able to. The result is a show that, from beginning to end, is in rare form, and one of the few entries—whether on the boards or on a menu—where that is not automatically a good thing.

Red Eye of Love
Through September 28
Dicapo Opera Theatre, 184 East 76th Street at Lexington Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix