Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.
Can musicals still enchant a cynical audience, sweep us into a fantasy land, and maybe even make our lives a little better? Charles Strouse sure thinks so, and he’s written a delightful new show to prove his theory. You Never Know, now playing its world premiere engagement at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI, is Strouse’s love song to the power of musical theatre. While the show is not without problems, it is undoubtedly the best thing to emerge from his pen sinceAnnie.
Ben Shapiro (played by Ben Steinfeld) is a young composer at a crossroads: his lawyer father wants him to go to law school, but his passion is in the theatre where his late grandfather toiled unsuccessfully. His granddad – also named Ben – has recently passed away, so young Ben has rented out a rehearsal studio for a public read-through of the unfinished musical left behind. As friends and strangers join the reading, their lives get tangled up in the story they’re enacting. Before long, both the characters and the audience are immersed in the show within the show, awash in tap dancing and those elusive (but rewarding) hummable tunes.
The conceit of the show works, but sometimes it works against itself. The book, which is credited as “by Charles Strouse with Rinnie Groff,” is solid, with plenty of laugh lines and a compelling story. Because the show is set in a rehearsal studio, there’s a piano on stage at all times. The two-level set features another studio above where a band and some dancers are rehearsing. By the second number, when the band conveniently begins playing a dance tune as the characters reach a dance moment, I found myself hoping that this wouldn’t be a musical that pretends it’s not a musical. Will there be some sort of textual excuse for every note that’s sung, every step that’s danced? Thankfully, this idea is gradually abandoned as the power of the music takes over. And, with songs that echo the best of Gershwin and Kern, and dances (by Christopher d’Amboise) reminiscent of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s work at MGM, it’s easy to get taken in quickly. Still, some of the songs and scenes from the play-within-the-play are laughably bad, particularly those that suffer from too much exposition. Are the creators trying to show us why the elder Ben’s career never took off, or are they making fun of musicals of the 1940s? Either way, both the play and the audience would be better served by better material, matching the quality of the “old show” to the “present day” material. Continue reading