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Review: MY 80-YEAR-OLD BOYFRIEND World Premiere at Merrimack Rep

My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend

Conceived and Performed by Charissa Bertels, Book and Lyrics by Christian Duhamel, Music and Lyrics by Edward Bell, Presented by Special Arrangement with Peilin Chou; Directed by Sean Daniels; Scenic Designer, Neil Patel; Costume Designer, Gregory A. Poplyk; Lighting Designer, Brian J. Lilienthal; Sound Designer, Daniel Erdberg; Music Director, Kevin David Thomas; Lead Producer, Emily Ruddock; Commercial Producer, Peilin Chou; Production Stage Manager, Casey L. Hagwood

Performances through May 21 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or

Merrimack Repertory Theatre focuses on new work which can be both a blessing and a curse for the audience going in without the benefit of knowing a play's track record. Well, let me go on the record to say that you have nothing to worry about with the current world premiere production of My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend, based on the true story of Broadway singer/actress Charissa Bertels and her unlikely friendship with a decidedly older gentleman. The narrative is uplifting, the score floats along with the story like a raft on a lazy river, and the performer is delightful company.

In 2010, Bertels was a twenty-something actress in New York going on countless auditions and selling "monkey juice" to keep body and soul together (barely) when she met Milton. The eighty-something gent purchased some juice and took an interest in spending time with her (strictly platonic). Despite their vast differences in age, fortune, and life experience, they had a special connection which eventually developed into a grandfatherly relationship. Through song and Bertels' fourth wall-breaking narration, My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend chronicles how their friendship blossomed through the trials and tribulations they shared, and the life lessons they learned from each other.

Bertels conceived the idea of turning the story into a one-woman show and recruited her friend Christian Duhamel to write the book and lyrics. He drafted Edward Bell to compose the music and co-write the lyrics. The musical numbers are key to the exposition of the details of Bertels' life before, during, and after meeting Milton. "What a View" describes what she sees when she visits his upper east side apartment for the first time - looking out the windows, taking in his personal effects, and beginning to see him as a person. "That Fifth Grade Feeling" recreates what it was like for her to star in a school play and discover her love of performing. Anyone who has been bitten by the acting bug can relate! By the same token, the longing and regret expressed in the poignant "The Love Left Behind" will resonate with anyone who has loved and lost.

Artistic Director Sean Daniels directs the MRT production, establishing a rapid pace in the beginning to reflect Bertels' manic urban life, but modulating the action to allow the appropriate ebb and flow of the emotional content. Music Director Kevin David Thomas, onstage at the baby grand, pounds out a bass-heavy opening number to give it an energetic charge, and displays great virtuosity with the rest of the score. The set (Neil Patel) and lighting (Brian J. Lilienthal) work hand in hand to place us in Milton's classy apartment, Charissa's postage-stamp size unit, a swank restaurant, an audition hall, and any additional sites that are part of the story. Among the sounds conjured up by designer Daniel Erdberg are subway trains, ringing phones, and crowd noise. Charissa's simple clothing is designed by Gregory A. Poplyk.

My 80-Year-Old-Boyfriend rises or falls on the ability of the performer to sell not only her own character, but to inhabit and convey the character of Milton, and Bertels has the chops and the personality to pull it off. With a gravelly voice and the slightest hunching over, she becomes this octogenarian with joie de vivre and a twinkle in his eye. When "they" sing and dance together ("Together With You"), it is practically worth the price of admission. As herself and as Milton, Bertels is a delightful, engaging performer. She has a great soprano belt and the piano accompaniment is terrific. In a nutshell, it is a very enjoyable ninety minutes of theater that doesn't make you think as much as it makes you feel, and it feels good.

Photo credit: Merrimack Repertory Theatre (Charissa Bertels)

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