If you’re reading up on this world premiere musical, and the name David Shire rings a bell, it should. He is the music man behind such musical reviews as “Starting Here, Starting Now” and “Closer Than Ever,” with lyricist and fellow Yale graduate, Richard Maltby, Jr. He also created the music for the Broadway shows “Baby” and “Big,” is a successful film score composer (he has at least one Academy Award for his “Norma Rae” score), and was the composer of the 1979 ear worm hit, “With You I’m Born Again,” made famous by Billy Preston and Syreeta. And you’re singing it to yourself right now.
First, kudos to Adam Gopnik for his well-written, original story as his first foray into the genre of musical theatre (he’s been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1986). I felt that the book was very strong: it is an engaging tale of a family of four – David and Claire Kaplan (Matt Bogart and Anastasia Barzee) and their children, Bix (Tyler Jones) and Kate (Sawyer Niehaus) – who live above and run a restaurant in New York City. It’s a successful, small restaurant called “Table” right near Union Square. Trouble arises when the landlord raises the rent to an astronomical sum and David must ask his former partner, successful celebrity restauranteur, Sergio (Constantine Maroulis) to buy back his share in Table so the family can make the steep rent. Sergio seizes the opportunity to “modernize” Table into a trendy hot-spot for celebrities, which goes against the very principle of David’s farm-to-table, warm aesthetic. Another point of contention: unbeknownst to David, Sergio and Claire were lovers 20 years ago, and Sergio is looking to reconnect. Strain and conflict heightened further when Sergio’s plans go beyond the restaurant, and include the takeover and rebranding of the Kaplan’s beloved Union Square farmers’ market that is run by their friends, Phoebe (Darlesia Cearcy) and Gloria (Danielle Ferland). Meanwhile, Bix is forming his own culinary adventure and romance with fellow teen, Anna (Krystina Alabado), who runs a pizza joint with her unconventional father, Carlo (Mark Nelson) in Bensonhurst.
Ms. Cearcy has one of the best voices in the show, and having her sing first in the opening number, “Something’s Growing,” was an excellent choice. Her warm, soulful voice welcomes the audience right into the show. Ms. Alabado and Mr. Jones do an excellent job overall with “So, Like, Maybe” by successfully capturing the sweetness and awkwardness of young love and trying to navigate that first “date.” Honestly, I wanted to see how their lives turn out – a sequel maybe? The Most Beautiful Pizzeria in New York? Their story line was charming. I also loved Mr. Nelson’s Carlo, the delightfully droll anarchist pizza maker (yes, there is such a thing); “Espresso!” was a great tune delivered with the right amount of curmudgeon-ness.
Ms. Barzee and Mr. Bogart are excellent in voice and in performance; these are two complex characters and both seasoned actors tackle their roles well: Mr. Bogart as the somewhat mercurial artist-chef and Ms. Barzee as the steadier of the couple. Mr. Maroulis sang very well and played the cad effectively, albeit his movements were a little mechanical; if these mannerisms are part of Mr. Maroulis’ rock persona, it’s curious as to why Mr. Edelstein didn’t correct that. At one point, I leaned over to my husband and said something about “Mr. Roboto” and had to suppress the giggles when Sergio started speaking Japanese in the next scene. Domo arigato, Mr. Gopnik.
Overall, I enjoyed the show, but I am trying to figure out why it didn’t knock my socks off. My only thought is that, as is often the problem with musicals, the songs are mostly forgettable. In the moment, they work well; they tell the story effectively, allow the actors to be demonstrative, but overall the songs didn’t make me want to run out and buy the soundtrack. Shire’s work overall has kind of gone that way: can you sing one song from “Big” or “Baby?” And I only know of “Starting Here, Starting Now” because it was a staple at the theater camp I went to as a teen. But I don’t want to discourage readers from going to see original musicals, as they are rare birds in the land of theatrical productions. So, for a fun night of theater, with a warm-hearted story and fun characters, go place an order with the Long Wharf Theatre and their season closer.
Photo: T.Charles Erickson
Tara Kennedy is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. She holds a BA in Art History from Northwestern University, an MLIS/CAS in Library Science/Preservation and Conservation Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, and an MS in Forensic Science from the University of New Haven. She is a Preservation Librarian at Yale University Library and a Consulting Conservator for cultural institutions around the country. She also is a Volunteer Researcher for the state of Arkansas for The Doe Network (www.doenetwork.org), a non-profit organization that assists with the identification of unidentified remains and the recovery of missing persons.