Wednesday, April 8, 2009
This new musical starts out promising, but halfway through the less than two-hour performance time the plot wears thin and I was wishing it would hurry up and be over. This is especially disappointing considering some of the most talented people in musical theatre are involved.
Happiness is supposed to be one of those appreciate-your-life shows. Nine people are trapped in a stalled New York City subway car -- eight of whom find out they have just died -- with a dour conductor, Stanley (Hunter Foster, left in photo), whose job is to guide them into eternity by helping them remember a happy moment from their past so they can “live in the bliss of that moment forever.”
One by one they recall their special time and then they disappear into their reward. The idea is cute initially, but after the first few enacted memories I began counting the riders left and thinking, “Oh, no. Still five more stories to go.”
The always-delightful Joanna Gleason is wasted here playing a right-wing, homophobic radio talk show host whose “moment” reveals a free-spirited hippie past.
Another waste of talent is with director Susan Stroman whose lively choreography is stifled by book writer John Weidman’s meager story line. The same could be said for the song writing team of Michael Korie and Scott Frankel who had so much to work with in their former venture, Grey Gardens, but who have such a skimpy plot here they write far too many songs to try to cover the emptiness.
One of the best moment/memories is that of Helen (Phyllis Somerville) as an elderly demented woman pushed around in a wheelchair by her aide, Hyacinth (Idara Victor). As with all the moments, the subway car recedes to the back of the stage and the memory is enacted in the front. (Thomas Lynch’s set design works well to make this flow.) Helen tells of being young and falling in love at a U.S.O. canteen during World War II. Nice swing music and dancing, even if her story is a cliché. All the others that will follow are too.
I also liked the account of Maurice (Ken Page), an interior decorator, who recalled sitting by the hospital bed of his partner who was dying of AIDS. A deathbed scene may not seem like a high point, but together they remember the good times they shared. “Relationships, like home decor, are in the small details,” Maurice concludes.
The rest, unfortunately, are bland at best. The most obnoxious character is Miguel (Miguel Cervantes), a bicycle messenger and deadbeat dad whose memories largely center around getting blow jobs.
The only one who isn’t dead and who a chance to go back is Zack (Sebastian Arcelus, right in photo), an uptight lawyer who sees the errors of his old ways, with “perfect moments that pass unnoticed,” and vows to live a centered, in-the-moment life if he can get out of the train. It takes two hours to get to this absolutely predictable ending.
By the close you will have one other absolutely predictable impression -- if we are ever asked one day to share our best memory to gain eternity, no one will be recalling this show.
Happiness plays through June 7 at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. For tickets and more information visit LCT.org.