Friday, October 16, 2009

Theater review: Cast, audience deserve better than underwhelming 'Love Is Love'

The cast of Love Is Love: Avery Sommers (far left),
Shelly Burch (seated in front), Patti Eyler (rear, standing),
Laura Hodos and Andrea McArdle.
(Photo by Alicia Donelan)



By Hap Erstein

It is a terrible mindset, but when hearing that a musical revue by a two-time Tony Award winner with a cast boasting several Broadway veterans is having its world premiere in South Florida, the first thought that comes to mind is, “Really? What’s wrong with it?"

Unfortunately, with Love Is Love, written by Annie’s Martin Charnin with music by Richard Gray, starring the likes of Andrea McArdle (the original Annie), Shelly Burch (featured in the original cast of Nine) and Avery Sommers (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Show Boat), it is an underwhelming exercise which cannot generate enough excitement to sustain our attention.

The reason it is first being seen at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre is entirely due to its veteran New York producer, Rodger Hess, who is also a member of the area theater’s board of directors. Hess has been successful with a few revival tours of the Depression-era musical, Annie, so when Charnin came to him with this new all-female revue based on the indefinable emotion that everyone seeks, but no one really understands, the frequent Jupiter resident made it a pre-season attraction at the Maltz.

The show stems from a New York Times column called Modern Love, from whose writers Charnin commissioned a handful of monologues, all of which could use some pruning. Those non-musical pieces then inspired songs by Charnin and Gray, most of which are perfectly well crafted, but hardly, well, inspired.

Once we get past a clumsy introduction where the cast pointlessly lists the characters they will be playing, the opening title number concedes that the show has no startling revelations on the subject of love. That soon becomes apparent, as the very game performers sprint through pleasant, but unexciting songs on such subjects as parenting woes, e-mail mash notes, singles bars, nosy neighbors, an unexpected encounter with one’s ex, a fan’s fixation on a rock star, marriage anxiety and, perhaps the nadir of inspiration, a complaint that husbands ignore their wives on football Sundays. (Substitute baseball for football and that news flash was delivered more than half a century ago in the opening number of Damn Yankees.)

The songs are all professionally constructed at least. Composer Gray has an easy way with a melody in a variety of genres and Charnin’s lyrics are verbally nimble without being self-conscious. The problem is that few of the musical numbers pack much surprise, a crucial element of a musical revue and of comedy for that matter. More often than not, once a song’s premise is stated -- i.e., men refuse to ask for directions and hate using maps -- that is as far as the notion goes.

Fortunately, the cast is professional enough not to let on that they are flogging such flaccid material. While we weren’t looking, McArdle grew up and turned 45, but still has a powerful, expressive singing voice and an appealing stage presence. Burch (a/k/a Mrs. Charnin) also impresses vocally and somewhere along the way has turned into an accomplished actress.

It is not their fault that they are upstaged by West Palm Beach’s own Sommers, who lends her big voice to the dramatic Not Every Child, a social worker’s lament late in the first act. And it is not her fault that she is assigned to deliver a flat, off-topic monologue of an airline passenger annoyed by a nearby, menacing tot. Orlando-based performers Laura Hodos and Patti Eyler seem particular short-changed by the material they’ve been given, but they carry on like the troupers they are anyway.

Director Charnin stages the evening conventionally, working in some rudimentary choreography by Liza Gennaro. If, as he has said, he intends to tour Love Is Love, his main task now is pushing his lyricist self to come up with sharper, more distinctive songs and weeding out the duds.

Such a wholesale transformation is not without precedent, so let’s not write off Love Is Love yet. But in a brief two-week run here in Jupiter, little change seems likely. The reason to go is to enjoy the performers, but they, and we, deserve better than what is currently on the Maltz stage.

LOVE IS LOVE, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Sun., Oct. 28. Tickets: $25-$28. (561) 575-2223.

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