Monday, April 20, 2009

Heaven Can't Wait

Music by Scott Frankel
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Book by John Weidman

Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman

Starring Fred Applegate, Sebastian Arcelus, Miguel Cervantes, Hunter Foster, Joanna Gleason, Ken Page, Robert Petkoff, Jenny Powers, Phyllis Somerville, Pearl Sun

Performances through June 7, 2009
Mitzi Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street

Sapp and Gleason in Happiness (photo: Paul Kolnik)
When you combine the talents of director-choreographer Susan Stroman and book writer John Weidman (who both worked on Contact) with composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie (best-known for Grey Gardens), you expect a show that’s inventive and diverting, which is what Happiness is.

A plotless musical with a thread running through its 14 musical numbers, Happiness introduces a cacophony of New Yorkers waking up to the rhythms of the city as they run off to work, to school, to the hospital, or to catch a cab or train. A handful of them ends up trapped in a subway car that’s stuck between stations, and it transpires that they are in purgatory, where they must stay until they think of the most perfect moment in their life, which they will be able to reenact forever in paradise.

Yes, the plot is unoriginal and uninspired (the show would be better off without it), but it does give these 10 characters their time in the spotlight. There's Helen, a wheelchair-bound senior citizen; Kevin, a cancer-riddled middle-aged doorman; Miguel, an energetic bicycle messenger; Neil and Cindy, married hospital interns; Zack, an aggressive young lawyer; Arlene, a right-wing talk-show host; Gina, who works at Bloomingdale’s perfume counter; Maurice, a famous gay black designer; and Stanley, their guide through this spiritual way station.

Happily, once its conceit is set up, Happiness junks further metaphysical mumbo-jumbo to concentrate on “perfect moment” showstoppers. Scott Frankel’s score is a shrewd mixture of upbeat songs and ballads, and although the slower numbers sound too similar, their emotional intensity raises them up a notch. The big, showier tunes are transformed into sensational set pieces by Stroman, who does wonders with movement and pacing on the tiny Mitzi Newhouse stage. The opening number, “Just Not Right Now,” set on the streets of Manhattan, is a miniature masterpiece of choreography, as the spirited actors and extras make it seem like midtown during rush hour.

Stroman outdoes herself in the two numbers right after that intoxicating beginning. Thinking back to a Buffalo USO show in 1944 in “Flibberty Jibbers and Wobbly Knees,” Helen gets to dance with the boyishly handsome soldier she just met and her younger self; it's a heartfelt, gossamer moment of memory freezing into eternity. The next number, “Best Seats in the Ballpark,“ lets Kevin reminisce about attending a World Series game with his dad when he was nine years old and, after bemoaning their horrible bleacher seats, getting to watch Willie Mays make his immortal catch in the outfield. These two numbers are Happiness at its best: a sweetly sentimental glimpse at the small triumphs in our lives.

After that spectacular trio, Happiness almost inevitably treads water, showing the melodrama of Maurice's final days with a lover dying of AIDS, the cutesiness of Miguel dressed as the tooth fairy for his young daughter, and the silliness of Jewish Neil and Asian Cindy playing a card game to learn the other’s customs. Throughout these rote sequences, at least Stroman's visual invention never flags, abetted by her masterful designers of sets (Thomas Lynch), costumes (William Ivey Long) and lighting (Donald Holder).

In fact, it's not until much later, in Arlene's big number—set during a Spooky Tooth concert at the Fillmore in the late 60s, as Arlene the hippie corners Mick Jagger (a lip-smacking Robb Sapp) in the men’s room—that Happiness rouses to a second life, moving toward its bittersweetly satisfying ending that dramatizes cherishing life’s small but lasting moments.

When everything runs smoothly, it’s musical euphoria, but dead spaces drag down the show: the middle number, "Perfect Moments," redundantly bridges the two halves and could have been excised. Many of the set pieces also wear out their welcome; if these were each shorn of a minute or two, the show would be immeasurably improved.

The large but splendid cast is led by Fred Applegate's touchingly sung Kevin, Joanna Gleason's delightfully nasty Arlene and Hunter Foster's sardonic Stanley. Even though it’s less than the sum of its parts, we should be happy that Happiness swings for the fences.

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