BWW Review: MAYBE HAPPY ENDING at Alliance Theatre
There's something wonderful on the Coca-Cola stage at the Alliance Theatre this February. It's the English-language premiere of the Korean musical Maybe Happy Ending, a fresh and quirky tuner by Will Aronson and Hue Park that made its celebrated world premiere in Seoul, South Korea in 2016 and went on to win six Korean musical awards as well as the 2017 Richard Rodgers Production Award. The Alliance Theatre's English-language production, superior in every aspect, continues the celebration in grand style. With sleek and effective set design by Dane Laffrey and wonderfully sensitive acting, the musical, which masquerades as a cute story about robots, is, in truth, a heartbreaking exploration of the fleeting nature of love.
Maybe Happy Ending tells the story of Claire (Cathy Ang) and Oliver (Kenny Tran), a pair of obsolete helper robots who have been discarded by their owners. When Claire's charger stops working, she seeks out help from Oliver, her next-door neighbor. As both helper-bots find themselves eager to forestall their natural (and rapidly approaching) endings, a rich and meaningful relationship grows.
Dane Laffrey's set is a work of technical brilliance. The main staging area, a turntable that moves us nimbly from location to location, is flanked by a frame of cubes that showcases silhouettes of jazz musicians, shadowy images of jazz radio DJs, and Sven Ortel's beautifully designed stage projections. The main staging area is alternately exposed and hidden by sliding walls outlined in colored light. The sliding walls come and go at varying angles and heights and create the sense that we are in a futuristic, technology-heavy world. The artifacts of the past from Oliver's room - an old-timey turntable, stacks of jazz magazines, a well-loved house plant - and the sleek-sliding walls create the perfect juxtaposition between the familiar past and the uncertain future.
Kenny Tran and Cathy Ang as helper-bots Oliver and Claire offer up performances that are a tour de force showcase. Kenny Tran, as an older 3-series helper-bot, subtly reminds us with convincing and endearing movements that he is a robot, and we need these reminders because the character he plays is so sensitively drawn that it's very easy to forget that he's a robot even though the script reminds us of it often. Cathy Ang is just as convincing in her turn as Claire. She navigates her character's emotional turmoil at the prospect of "dying" with a vulnerability that makes the end of the play both heartbreaking and inevitable. Both principal actors are funny and likable. Dez Duron, another member of the small, five-person cast, also gives a notable performance in his turn as Gil Brentley, a big-band front man that Oliver likes to pass his time listening to. His crooning, dreamy and atmospheric, lends a magical ambiance to the well-told story.
The musical, which runs in a short two hours, is wonderfully developed on the page in all areas but one: the maybe happy ending. As the title suggests, how things end is important and uncertain. The musical is developed with care and precision right up until that ending. The skeleton of the ending is good, but the ending comes just a tiny bit too quickly. At the end of the musical, one of the helper-bots engages in an important action, but the musical barrels to a shocking conclusion with such ferocity that the action is over before the audience can really digest what's happening.
Despite the quick ending, the musical is marvelous, and the Alliance Theatre's production of it is simply not to be missed. The story is interesting and beautifully realized, and it'll leave you both eager and afraid to assess your own relationship to love.