Regional Reviews: Phoenix
My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend
The show stars Charissa Bertels, who conceived the musical and based it on true events in her past. Most of the story is set about 10 years ago, and begins when Bertels was a struggling actress in New York City who had a day job selling a line of high-end juices in grocery stores. One day, an 80-year-old man named Milton, who likes talking with her, buys out the remainder of her stock so she can spend the rest of her shift with him. When he asks her to come to his apartment, Charissa doesn't quite know how to proceed, but she thinks he's harmless, so she goes. Charissa comes to realize that Milton is an intellectual and cultured man who just happens to speak his mind, and who also happens to be wealthy. The two develop a friendship that includes frequent restaurant lunches (she insists they go Dutch), poker games, and a shared fondness for each other. But Charissa also learns they share fractured family relationships and that friendships, especially ones with an older friend, must be cherished even if there are disagreements at times that threaten to break the friendship apart.
Charissa Bertels is a powerhouse performer. She is on stage for almost the entire 100-minute, one-act show, and she is constantly magnetic, passionate and genuine. The story of her relationship with Milton is entertaining and humorous, but also has plenty of heart. While, clearly, Bertels should be exceptional in playing herself, it's amazing how well she also portrays a fully three-dimensional Milton, with just a gravelly voice, a slouched down body, and a devilish gleam in her (his?) eye. The fact that I came to care for Milton, even though we technically never see him on stage, is a testament to Bertels' rich and fine-tuned acting abilities. The fast-paced conversations she has between the two characters are humorously delivered and Bertels' singing voice soars on the numerous songs in the score, including the comical, showstopping "Together With You," which is a virtual duet with Bertels seamlessly switching back and forth from portraying herself to playing Milton. In addition to ensuring the comical lyrics land, she's equally adept in making the honest and moving moments in both character's lives meaningful. The scene toward the end of the play after Charissa and Milton have a disagreement and she faces tragedy is extremely moving in the brutal honesty Bertels depicts. That moment is authentic and moving and got me choked up in how truthful and emotionally raw it is.
The program notes state that, as a way to stay artistically nimble during her endless days of auditioning for Broadway shows and working mindless jobs, Bertels kept notes about her actual meetings with Milton and those notes formed the basis of the musical. Edward Bell's music features a rage of song styles that work well for the story. The lyrics by Bell and Christian Duhamel are witty and humorous but also emotionally rich when necessary. Duhamel's book effectively weaves in detailed events from Bertels' past while also presenting characters and situations that are honest. My only quibble is that the beginning of the show is a little overly cutesy and silly and that it isn't until Charissa gets to Milton's apartment, and sings the wonderful "What a View," that the story truly starts to jell. Fortunately, the second half of the show also ends up to be a very moving tale about friendship, family, and the importance of taking the time to acknowledge the necessity of both.
Sean Daniels' direction delivers not only a wonderful, multi-faceted performance from Bertels but also makes sure the pacing of the show never lags and that the truth and honesty of the characters and the messages of the play are beautifully told. His staging makes good use of the large Herberger stage, especially in the hilarious A Christmas Story audition sequence.
Neil Patel's set design uses clean lines and four columns with constantly changing light panels (Brian J. Lilienthal's lighting is quite beautiful and efficient) to serve as a backdrop for the locations and to suggest, somewhat, the large windows of Milton's apartment. Jen Caprio's costumes are fun and functional as Bertels changes numerous times throughout the show. Her final gown is gorgeous. Music director Jose C. Simbulan provides the onstage accompaniment with warm notes and skilled delivery.
With a passionate performance by Bertels and an important message about how we should cherish the time we have with family and friends, My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend at Arizona Theatre Company proves to be funny and fun and also a deeply moving and universal story about the power of friendships and the importance of connections between human beings.
My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend runs through November 7, 2021, at Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, visit www.arizonatheatre.org or call 602-2566995.
Book and Lyrics: Christian Duhamel
*Member, Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States