Talkin’ Broadway: You Never Know

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Haviland Stillwell and Ben Steinfeld

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.

Still, even the occasional moment of second-rate Strouse is better than most of the composers currently represented by new shows on Broadway. For this score, he writes his own lyrics. While his words don’t ever achieve the transcendence of some of his past collaborations, they aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. And, while his last new score (Marty) suffered from too many musical scenes and not enough songs, You Never Know gives us tune after tune, with big finishes and rooms for applause all around.

Director Amanda Dehnert has assembled a perfect team to bring this show to life. The nine-piece band sounds like a full Broadway pit under the baton of Charlie Alterman, playing charts by Dan DeLange. The set by David Jenkins brings a few surprises into the intimate Chace Theatre. John Ambrosone’s lights help us navigate between the show’s present reality and musical theatre imagination, while William Lane’s costumes cleverly blur the lines between the two worlds. And the cast ensures that above all else, this show is a lot of fun.

As both Ben Shapiro, the young composer, and Ben Shipley, his grandfather, Ben Steinfeld (the actor) displays tremendous charisma, and he holds the show together. While his singing is a bit thin, particularly on the ballads, he brings believability to both characters he plays. Julio Monge and Darryl Semira inhabit the older and younger incarnations of Shipley’s friend Luis so well that after the show, I had a hard time remembering who played the part in which scene. In fact, the cast is excellent all around, but none more so than Haviland Stillwell as Abby/Ashley, the young theatre student who’s an aficionado of Shipley’s work and the dame in the play-within-the-play around whom the plot twists. She juggles the dual roles skillfully, becoming our clearest guide as to when we’re in the “real world” of the play or the interior world of the play-within. Her first act ballad “All I Want Is Not to Want” is a highlight, and even her second-act breakdown of “Pills and Booze” becomes a showstopper in her hands, although she deserves a better song for that moment.

The show makes a bold musical-comedy statement at the end, turning the idea of a “happy ending” on its ear – quite literally. For the resolution comes not in the tying up of the plot or the union of the characters, but in the ultimate triumph of music. Unfortunately, the musical statement of this theme falls short. With the entire show building up to the moment of Ben writing his own song, we expect a powerhouse finale to emerge from his keys. Unfortunately – just as in the similar scenario in Rent – Ben’s song is one of the weakest in the score. But, as the show-stopper from the first act reminds us, “as long as you have music,” things go right. So the cast sends us off on a reprise of that number – and I’ve been humming it ever since.

You Never Know is presented by the Trinity Repertory Company now through May 22 at the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington Street, Providence, RI. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday nights with occasional matinee performances on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Check the Trinity Rep website for a complete schedule. Tickets are availableonline or by calling the box office at (401) 351-4242.

Trinity Rep’s 41st season concludes with Drew Hayden Taylor’s The Buz’Gem Blues. Trinity Rep’s 42nd season includes The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Rupert Holmes, based on Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel; Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams; Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers by William S. Yellow Robe, Jr.; Hamlet by William Shakespeare; Indoor/Outdoor by Kenny Finkle; Rhode Island: Untitled; and Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmund Rostand.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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