Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theatre loves to incubate new musicals, and their pedigree is quite impressive; previous smash hits we’ve seen at birth include Hairspray and Catch Me if You Can. Their most recent creation is A Room with a View, now in previews.
Let me repeat: this show is one in previews. There’s time for improvement. Anything’s possible, but this is how the play currently stands.
And another caveat: the problem is not with the production or the acting. Everything about this is first-rate, and the veteran cast delivers solid performances. Anchoring the cast is Laura Griffith, whose 5th Avenue credits include The Music Man, Candide, and The Secret Garden, among others. She’s a strong and versatile performer and conveys the right amount of reticence, hesitation, then independence and stubbornness. The story’s on her shoulders, and her arc is believable. She also has one of the best moments in the first act, with a delightful song (accompanied by a cooperative piano) with “Ludwig and I”. Lucy scandalizes her elders by playing Beethoven, so she retorts with this spritely, but defiant, song.
Another standout performance is Suzy Hunt. She was last seen in the ACT/5th Avenue co-production of Grey Gardens as Big Edie. Here, she’s much more glamorous, first as independent novelist, and later as the great battleship Mrs. Vyse. She delivers her lines with ease and breezy aplomb.
An especially tough role, well played, is Will Reynolds as Cecil Vyse, Lucy’s well-heeled suitor. The character is more complex than most in this vein. Many times the rejected suitor is portrayed as a one-note twit. Here, he’s a well-heeled snob who realizes the shallowness and hypocrisy of his station and class, and enjoys tweaking them. But, as he explains to Lucy, he doesn’t reject his station because he doesn’t know how else to live. Of course, the play is also based upon an E. M. Forester novel, so his depth–such as it is–shouldn’t be too surprising. But one can’t help but wonder if Cecil and Lucy’s life together might have turned out better than she expected.
Also of note is Patti Cohenour, as Lucy’s prim and proper aunt, Charlotte Bartlett. Interestingly, she also most recently appeared with Suzy Hunt as Little Edie in Grey Gardens. Her recounting of what happens when a woman’s reputation is destroyed is funny–and poignant.
Also in the cast are Luis Hobson, as Lucy’s other suitor, George Emerson; Allen Fitzpatrick as George’s father; Matt Owen as Lucy’s equally carefree brother Freddy, and Richard Gray, as a repressed and closeted vicar who becomes considerably less repressed and closeted.
But, structurally, the play is uneven. Whether that’s because of Marc Acito’s book or David Armstrong’s direction is unclear. While there are some lively moments in the first act, it plods along and feels longer than its 70 minutes. Even during the big production number, “The Music of the Street”, it seemed some spark was missing, and the song “A Carriage and Driver” seemed to one too long. On the other hand, the octet “Non Fate Guerra” came across very well. An earlier ensemble piece, “Dear Brittania” got lost. Only partway through did I realize that multiple parts were going on. Obviously, whatever staging or sound problems that plagued the first part were fixed by the end.
The second act moved along much better, especially the lively and naughty “Splash” (the basis for the poster), so it seemed the play could redeem itself. Except that, in the last scene, the story collapses. It brings us a last-minute change of heart, a totally unexplained and unrealistic deus ex machina. Perhaps another song would have solved that problem, which could be accomplished by shaving time off some of the longer pieces, or eliminating something entirely.
Part of the problem is that the show’s not really a musical, in the classical sense. It’s actually a “play with music”, to paraphrase Oscar Hammerstein in describing their own shows. This play contains very little dancing. Songs are the “stand and deliver” variety, and, while the score by the up-and-coming Jeffery Stock is certainly lively and interesting, audiences are never certain what to make of these kinds of musicals. They need a stronger story throughout to justify the musical interludes. Light in the Piazza worked, but mainly because the love affair between the daughter and the suitor was not the main story; rather, it was in the mother’s realization of her daughter’s independence. In Room, the romance is central, and everybody really knows how it’s going to end; the theme of freedom from social constraint seems too broad here and the contrived ending dilutes the story even more.
The audience’s reaction was polite but not overwhelming. That sums up my reaction as well. No excitement, no spark. Let me switch metaphors just long enough to say that I see the show as still a diamond in the rough.