BWW Reviews: ROMANCE Is in the Air at North Coast Rep
Valentine's Day picked up where it left off with song, dance, and laughter at North Coast Rep's season finale production of Romance/Romance. In a musical sugar high rivaling an entire box of Godiva chocolates wrapped in gold foil and crimson ribbon, the lively young cast caroused, mugged, belted out song after song and generally carried on in a scenario that linked romantic rabble-rousing in a refined early 1900s European atmosphere with midsummer madness in a thoroughly American present and tied them up with a red velvet bow.
With book and lyrics by Barry Harman and music by Keith Herrmann, the tuneful, Tony-and Drama Desk Award-nominated bonbon charmed audiences both off and on Broadway for good reason: the music is mouthwatering, the lyrics are delectable, and the story is delicious fun.
Often described as "Two Musicals each in One Act" - "The Little Comedy" and "Summer Share" - the award winning show originally was produced in the late 1980s, Off-Broadway at the Actors Outlet Theater, and on the Great White Way at the Helen Hayes Theater. Each act, a play-within-a-show with its own cast of characters, explores themes of loyalty among friends, and features the same four actors displaying their considerable talents with virtuosic ease, individually and together, mixing it up with sexual heat.
The first act resembles a comedy of manners - Dangerous Liaisons meets A Little Night Music - steeped in Viennese aristocratic elegance and peppered with epistolary romance and upper class ennui, hidden identity and subterfuge, as the two protagonists sing and dance their way through their romantic travails, each without knowing the other's true identity (suspension of disbelief, anyone?): an operetta within an operetta.
In Act Two, the scene morphs to present day with two couples sharing a beach house in the Hamptons: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice without the sex but rife with sexual fantasies, philosophical discussions about marriage, and innuendos of infidelity.
As the two would-be lovers in "Comedy" a perfectly matched Lance Arthur Smith and Melissa Wolfklain steamed up the stage in a detached 1900s Vienna sort of way, somehow managing to preserve the heat in their mock relationship and deftly switching back to an upper crust, cooler approach when their true identities are revealed and reality sets in. In his NCRT debut Smith, a veteran of San Diego theatre and a published author, commanded attention with his authoritative, elite charm. Nimbly demonstrating her considerable bi-coastal thespian experience, Wolfklain met the challenge, swerving, deflecting, demurring, and then meeting Smith's challenge straight on. Both actors were equally impressive in belting out Barry Harman's inordinately clever lyrics and hoofing up a storm with Jill Gorrie's enticing footwork.
Providing comic support, Jeffrey Scott Parsons, doubling as Wolfklain's hapless lover and servant, and Jill Townsend, seductive as both Viennese ingénue and chambermaid, lit up the stage with an appealing natural chemistry. Parsons was the perfect partner for Townsend's scintillating dance moves that perhaps reflected balletic and athletic training. The pair dominated when appropriate, yet relinquished the scene to the principal couple when called for by action and plot.
In a switch that pushed the envelope of Act One, the couples in Act Two share a Hamptons beach house in a present day setting, paired off differently as married couples, Parsons with Wolfklain and Smith with Townsend. When infidelity raises its ugly head, the two who were matched in Act One try not to succumb to temptation, while the other two bemoan that possibility between their two spouses. No mistaken identity here; only the recognition that in love as in war battle lines must be drawn and, if Providence intervenes, erased.
Rick Simas is familiar to NCRT fans as director of hits such as The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Man with a Load of Mischief, as well as to audiences throughout San Diego and Northern California. In Romance/Romance he shows to advantage the abilities of each of the actors, making their respective relationships feel both fantastical and real, and creating audience sympathy for them. Under Simas's direction the comic timing was impeccable, and Harman's difficult word-rich dialogue was impressively executed and easily understood.
It is scarcely surprising that Harman has won and been nominated for the theatre industry's most prestigious kudos. The writer, lyricist, and theater and TV producer has been recognized as a primetime Emmy and Writers Guild Award winner and Tony and Drama Desk Award nominee. In this offering, originally intended as one musical in a contemporary setting based on a short work by French playwright Jules Renard, he adroitly couples with it another story by Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler that takes place in 1900s Vienna, thus creating two plays within one. His unceasingly glib yet ingenious dialogue challenges the actors' capacities to carry off rapid-fire comic turns of phrase and action in a plot that seems both unbelievable and compellingly real. The result was thoroughly engaging.
Tony nominated and Outer Critics Circle Award winning composer Keith Herrmann has collaborated with numerous writers in theater and TV, including Barry Harman. His music for this show meshed well with Harman's lyrics. Choreographer Gorrie took Herrmann's persuasive tunes and ran, jumped, leapt, waltzed and polkaed with them. Her maneuvers for Townsend and Parsons were particularly winning, allowing these two gifted hoofers an opportunity to shine.
Alina Bokovikova's costumes integrated perfectly with both the period and contemporary scenarios: lush and sparkling in Act One and comfortably familiar for Act Two's beach house bonanza. As always, NCRT scenic designer Marty Burnett delivered brilliantly with his unit set that leapt across time frames separated by one hundred years.
Despite the mid-July heat, though the performance felt a bit long at times, the chocolate in Romance never melted. Performances run through Sunday, August 3.
Photo credit: Aaron Rumley