Friday, August 16, 2013

NYC Theater Roundup: “Let It Be,” “First Date,” “Harbor”

Let It Be
Songs by the Beatles; directed by John Maher
Performances began July 16, 2013
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY

First Date
Music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner; book by Austin Winsberg
Directed by Bill Berry
Performances began July 9, 2013
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Written by Chad Beguelin; directed by Mark Lamos
Performances through September 8, 2013
59 E 59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

In an entertainment world full of endless recycling, it’s no surprise some new stage shows are simply pale shadows of what we’ve seen before. Let It Be, the latest Beatles tribute show, follows the tried and true formula on Broadway in 1977 (Beatlemania) and in 2010 (Rain); the Broadway musical First Date and off-Broadway play Harbor feel like sitcoms that go beyond TV’s 30-minute constraints to their detriment.

"John Lennon" in Let It Be (photo: Chad Batka)
The Beatles are a cash cow that keeps on giving, especially among baby boomers, so it’s a no-brainer to bring another Beatles tribute show to Broadway, following the success of Rain three years ago. Let It Be hits all the audience-pleasing notes that its predecessors did: note-perfect recreations of beloved classics from “I Saw Her Standing There” to the title tune, and passable recreations of the Fab Four’s constantly changing look from early-era suits to Sgt. Pepper psychedelia to a last lap of long hair and beards.

It all goes down easily enough—and the eager audience gratefully laps it up—but there’s a stunning lack of originality, as several segments from Rain are aped: selections from the era’s TV shows and commercials are shown on screens in the theater, a semi-acoustic set that includes selections from Rubber Soul is played, and even a fake Jimi Hendrix is heard in a snippet of the real Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

But very little of this will matter to anyone who plunks down their money, and in the end, it shouldn’t. Proficient musicians—several veterans of Rain or other Beatles tribute groups—play dozens of songs in just over two hours, and the show climaxes with the group’s ultimate audience participation song, “Hey Jude.” That the real Paul McCartney is still touring and playing many of these same songs at age 71 is obviously no impediment to Let It Be’s success, although personally I would rather hear Sir Paul himself lead an audience in a corny “nah nah nah” sing-along than these faceless imitators.

Rodriguez and Levi in First Date (photo: Joan Marcus)

If you enjoy undercooked Broadway musicals, then First Date is for you. This slight one-acter (90 minutes, stretched perilously thin) plays out a couple’s blind date in real time, and if that doesn’t sound like much, obviously its creators thought the same. So we get diversionary tactics throughout, as Aaron and Casey—meeting in a sparsely-populated Manhattan bar—are accosted by his ex-GF Allison and best friend Gabe, and her sister Lauren and ex-BFs of her own, along with an annoying waiter and other permutations of the show’s supporting cast.

The jokes are plentiful but only fitfully funny in Austin Winsberg’s book, which comprises so many one-liners that, if they were taken out of the show, there wouldn’t be much conversation left. Winsberg also desperately tries to make this pair fully-formed, so Aaron is given a mournful moment about his dead mother and Casey’s gruff exterior armor is gradually chipped away.   

Director Bill Berry’s swift pace helps, since the clunkier moments—Casey’s gay friend Reggie, who continuously calls to help her end a bad date, gets three “Bailout” interludes, and Aaron’s clichéd Jewish family carries on, Fiddler on the Roof-style, in reaction to a possible shiksa girlfriend—come and go quickly, happily. If Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner’s lyrics alternate cleverness with insipidness, their tunes are pretty much routine pop, with the exception of “I’d Order Love,” the waiter’s old-fashioned showstopper.

Making First Date palatable are its charming leads Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez, who transcend the stereotypical nerd and hipster they are forced to play through force of sheer personality. They can also sing: Rodriguez especially has a set of powerful pipes, but never overdoes it a la American Idol. If First Date is mostly disposable, Levi and Rodriguez are anything but.

The cast of Harbor (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Harbor playwright Chad Beguelin spends a lot of time trying to make his characters—irresponsible (and pregnant) single mom Donna, her wise-beyond-her-teen-years daughter Lottie, Donna’s immature gay brother Kevin and his husband, architect Ted—so wittily with-it that every comment tumbling out of their mouths is a fully formed epigram or, failing that, a wisecrack. In that, the play shares a lot with many current movies and TV sitcoms in which everyone is improbably smart and cutting with every line of dialogue. The trouble is, it sacrifices plausibility and sympathy for crass humor (“Fag Harbor,” Donna sneers when arriving at Kevin’s beautiful Sag Harbor home).

Beguelin’s plot—homeless Donna and Lottie show up on Kevin and Ted’s doorstep in their beaten-up van, and misunderstandings and would-be hilarity ensue—is an excuse to throw these people together and have them toss zingers at one another while they dissect Donna and Kevin’s long-dormant relationship. Director Mark Lamos’ spirited cast keeps a spiffy pace, but with an intermission and running time of two-plus hours, the already slim comedy becomes stretched out of all proportion to its meager rewards.

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