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OK, everybody out of the pool!! (If I had a whistle, I’d blow it.) And don’t dive into musical theatre until everybody’s on the same page. Here’s a NYMF musical I found to be drowning in identity confusion and frequent tone switches, the sum of its very varied parts not adding up to a whole…or a whole lot. But some parts –and parts played---work. But, first, let’s identify the “cabaret connections” as we do for all our NYMF reviews.
There are three I’d like to bring up. Unfortunately, one probably shouldn’t be revealed as it’s a delightful uncredited, surprise cameo appearance by a cabaret-experienced celebrity and I hate to spoil the surprise which is the delicious “deus ex machina” moment and the highlight of the show. If you want a hint, it’s someone best known for TV series, but who has played nightclubs including a posh NYC cabaret room that recently announced its demise.
Not so long ago, the cabaret world was abuzz about a new, very young boy wonder who sang and played the piano wonderfully, embracing the standards written way before he was born, with an old soul’s sensitivity. We soon learned that he wrote his own songs, too. Recordings from this talented fellow followed, and he’s stayed the course. He’s our “cabaret connection” for this latest in a series of reviews of musicals in the summer festival, NYMF, and his name is Peter Cincotti. He’s written the music and lyrics for How Deep Is The Ocean?, with the book by his sister, Pia Cincotti. But the setting is far from the sophisticated cabaret rooms where sophisticated people still get sophisticatedly teary over old sophisticated sentimental standards, like the one by Irving Berlin that shares this plays title. Not much sophistication here, the characters being shlubs, beach lovers and loafers. The ocean may be pretty deep, but they don’t appear to be, showing no evidence of having read such a thing as a book while lying in the sun. It all takes place in and around the beaches and pools of New Jersey’s shore.
The other “connection” concerns the history of leading man, Eric Leviton, who cabaret award watchers will remember was half the duo (with Michael Kostroff) who won a Nightlife Award for a vaudeville-style comedic revue called A Little Traveling Music several years ago. He plays a guy who seems to live on tuna fish dishes and beer and that and one other thing make his life complete: he’s been fascinated (obsessed?) since childhood (Cue the 10-second flashes of flashbacks) with the wonders of chlorine and chemicals. So, naturally, he cleans pools for a living and loves his job to the point that he blocks out other things, like his wife and his personal development or appearance. Pools must be cleaned. He cleans them. There’s nothing else dirty, except the crass words his neglected, long-suffering wife peppers conversations with. The beach community has problems with polluted water, so can this oaf-like devoted expert work similar magic for the H2O there? (You know, the Atlantic Ocean). The locals are mostly a group of anonymous people cheering or despairing and reacting en masse, traveling across the stage in small steps as if wrapped together in a net used for major fish hauls. With the exception of the man boasting a quite tight, bright red speedo and not much else but muscles, most wear unattractive (not in a comical way) costumes that look like they were bought second-hand a decade ago and that the cast members have been sleeping in them --- for a while. There’s a depressing glumness clinging to the surface, like green scum growing on a neglected pool. Is there anything interesting about this? Is there anything funny about this? Is there anything likeable about these characters? Is there a worthwhile musical in this? Maybe, but they have to decide what its tone is because right now, it has several mismatched ones. The two-act, two-hour play, which has TWO directors credited (Jeremy Dobrish and Gina Rattan) would have more hope if it didn’t have this identity crisis. Some numbers go for broad campiness, some moments ask us to take things seriously, others suggest an agenda of parody and sarcasm, and one moment they’re winking and the next wanting to be misty-eyed. Pick a team.
Eric Leviton’s lumbering and dull character is just not quirky or interesting or sympathetic enough to spend this much stage time with. There are a couple of attractive singing voices in the company, with Aaron Ramey’s bravura heroic sound quite thrilling. He’s the supposed pal/co-worker semi-secretly in love with the hero’s wife who might steal her and the ocean-cleaning job and the town’s undying gratitude. Michelle Federer as the aforementioned under-appreciated, foul-mouthed, mousey “pool widow” colors her songs with nuance and wistfulness and personality and intelligence that nevertheless seem at odds with her forlorn, dull-as-dishwater, whiny character in dialogue scenes. (One lets this slide somewhat as a convention of musical theatre, letting folks express emotion and thought in song more articulately than they can in more mundane dialogue.) The good news is that they do much of the singing, besides our pool man. Other numbers are ensemble pieces where no one gets the spotlight for long, though the youngest cast member, Joseph Ryan Harrington --- who’s played the title role in Billy Elliot --- makes a pleasing impression on some sweetly-intoned solo lines. (He’s the representative kid among the townspeople, zipping along on his scooter and is trotted out from time to time for those flashbacks to look pained as Mama’s offstage voice screeches at him.)
Then there are two high-energy highlights of the show –as far as both performance panache and their quality, both old-school song-and-dance sort-of-fantasy numbers. One is that juicy cameo by a celebrity (Google and find out who, if you prefer). The other cameo is the all-stops-out strutting, sassy number for the deceased Mama coming back in another form, superbly done by the sensational LaVon Fisher-Wilson. Both are the kind of splashy personality-plus pluses that make one grin from ear to ear. But these are not typical. Nothing is typical here.
Since the story and characters are dull and mundane and the plot is full of ludicrous things (a local, dopey pool cleaner hired to clean up the whole ocean and mixing the ingredients successfully, casually, in his home --- hello?), it seems the way to go is cartoony. Perhaps a show doctor is in order, because this drowning victim may well benefit from CPR or re-tooling. Some numbers are swell. They’re almost there. One could glorify the little guy, give free reign to the silly. Think Little Shop of Horrors, Bat Boy, and such, with a touch of the more workable kind of blue collar humor. Be consistent. And establish the tone right away. Let the grandiose singing for small-scale dreams go and the mix of hero/villain that wants to unleash itself as an over-the-top Les Misérables or florid swashbuckling style go for it. Let the tedious talk of tuna fish go somewhere (if a can of tuna can --- is tuna fish really so amusing?) and let the repeated talk about the wonders of chlorine pay off, too. Maybe even call it Chlorine! The Musical!! Now, that sounds clearly like a silly B-movie kinda musical. Tough love is needed, and I’d love to see this work better.
The show continues for two performances on Thursday, July 19 (5pm and 9pm) and ends with a 1pm matinee on Saturday, July 21. THIS SHOW HAS BEEN EXTENDED for two more performnces: July 26 and 27, both at 1 pm. See nymf.org for info on all the shows and many other events in the festival, including free readings. This one plays at the Theatre at St. Clement’s at 423 West 46 Street. Tickets are $25.
THIS SHOW HAS BEEN EXTENDED for two more performnces: July 26 and 27, both at 1 pm.
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