Romantic Poetry @ Manhattan Theatre Club @ NY City Center Stage I, New York

cast list
Jeb Brown
Jerry Dixon
Ivan Hernandez
Mark Linn-Baker
Patina Renea Miller
Emily Swallow

directed by
John Patrick Shanley
For a musical that’s described on its poster as a “mad musical bouquet,” Romantic Poetry offers up a soggy floral arrangement.

The new musical, which takes place on a shimmering pink-and-red-lit nightclub-style set and is now playing at City Center Stage I, is nothing but a flimsy concoction of preposterous romance and half-assed comedy that never quite congeals to make for anything satisfying.

Boasting a knockout creative team that includes composer Henry Krieger of Dreamgirls fame as well as book writer and lyricist John Patrick Shanley (known for his Moonstruck screenplay), whose Pulitzer-winning Doubt will be released as a film this winter, it’s a shame that the cooks couldn’t come up with something a bit more zesty. They’ve fashioned themselves a soupy broth, but even the frothiest of musicals needs a bit of meat in it.

The plot is as follows. Fred, a cell phone salesman who fancies himself a poet, has just married Connie, a superstitious Long Islander (she was born “on All Soul’s Day while her mother looked into the eyes of a black dog,” a fact that has rendered her capable of shrinking men through mind control). It’s the third marriage for both, a fact that comes into play as the plot unfurls.

While on their honeymoon, they’re greeted by the caterer and the hotel concierge, Frankie and Mary, who fall in love instantaneously and spend the rest of the show on again, off again, on again, and so on.

Meanwhile, as news of the marriage reaches Connie’s two exes, not-quite-there Red and lawyer Frankie, the crux of the show’s conflict is revealed. Connie’s not really divorced from any either of her ex-husbands. Frankie, in the spirit of unsuspecting reconciliation, faked the papers in the hopes that her marriages might somehow be righted.

Syrupy musical fight scenes ensue, to embarrassing effect, and by the musical’s second half the musical has broken down into a hollow examination of beauty, loss, society, and the joys of the bohemian life that the characters end up striving for (after a series of impromptu career changes, including lawyer Frankie’s adoption of a career as communist cafe owner). Loose ends don’t ultimately get resolved so much as dissolve into treacle, capped by the finale We Are Stars with its sappy sea-sail-star-wind imagery.

Throughout, a sense of aimlessness prevails. The earnestness of the show’s songs is in direct dischord with the seemingly purposeful preposterous nature of the plot. Though a sense of Dreamgirls-level excellence shines through on occasion when Krieger’s melodies soar, Shanley’s lyrics are consistently drippy (“Yes, I have loved before/Isn’t that what a heart is for?”), though one has to give credit to anyone who can come up with a rhyme – even of the slant variety – as off-the-wall as “Das Kapital” and “baby doll.”

It’s obvious that Shanley should have kept his hand out of the directorial side of things. It’s a classic case of overindulgence. His wildest fancies here have gone unchecked. It’s not that the show isn’t well-meaning (more than can be said of some musicals); it’s just that a surer hand controlling the direction of the production could have perhaps reined in some of the writers’ zanier ideas.

At least the cast are amiable enough. Ivan Hernadez and Emily Swallow are winning as the central newlyweds. And though the comedy of Jeb Brown and Mark Linn-Baker as the ex-husbands, as written, wears thin quickly, you can’t say they didn’t try to lift the material out of its morass.

It’s ultimately the most grossly underwritten pair, Jerry Dixon and Patina Renea Miller, who steal the show. Miller, whose stunning voice was a standout in Shakespeare in the Park’s Hair this summer, is once again the highlight. She manages, during the few moments she’s given in the spotlight, to revive even the stalest of musicals, if only for a moment. “Give me love, or let me wait,” she sings, in an easy R&B-style song. The audience most surely showed her love; hopefully she won’t make us wait to see her really get to strut her stuff in a worthier vehicle.

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