Review: PRELUDE TO A KISS Returns to South Coast Repertory as a World Premiere Musical

Based on the 1988 play and subsequent 1992 film adaptation, this genuinely charming but disjointed work-in-progress new musical struggles with an identity crisis.

By: Apr. 23, 2024
Review: PRELUDE TO A KISS Returns to South Coast Repertory as a World Premiere Musical
Enter Your Email to Unlock This Article

Plus, get the best of BroadwayWorld delivered to your inbox, and unlimited access to our editorial content across the globe.

Existing user? Just click login.

Hampered by having never seen the original 1988 play nor its 1992 film adaptation, I came into seeing the new World Premiere production of PRELUDE TO A KISS - THE MUSICAL at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa with no real preconceived notions of what to expect, except for the factual stats of the play's legacy and a brief synopsis of its basic narrative thanks to the theater's press release.

Actually, one of the first facts I learned was that the original play—written by Craig Lucas—also made its world premiere right here at SCR in 1988 before it went on to acclaimed revised 1990 productions in New York, first off-Broadway and then on Broadway, where the latter production received a nomination for Best Play at the Tony Awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Lucas himself will also eventually write the adapted screenplay for its 1992 film iteration which featured Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin (who starred as Peter in the play's off-Broadway run) in the lead roles.

Now, in a sort of full-circle, homecoming moment, Lucas has returned to SCR once again to write the book for PRELUDE TO A KISS' new musical adaptation (which has been long in the works, reportedly), this time incorporating a score by Daniel Messé, who also co-wrote the lyrics with Sean Hartley. The new fully-realized production—which delayed its official opening night to just this past Wednesday evening due to a major last-minute cast change—continues performances at the Tony Award-winning theater through May 4, 2024.

At its most basic structure, PRELUDE TO A KISS - THE MUSICAL—helmed by SCR's own artistic director David Ivers—is equipped with a proven foundation, but it does try its best to admirably be an earnestly heartfelt and poignant musicalized stage adaptation of the acclaimed play and film of the same name.

Review: PRELUDE TO A KISS Returns to South Coast Repertory as a World Premiere Musical
Jonathan Gillard Daly and Hannah Corneau.
Photo by Matt Gush.

With its newly-minted surfaces—accentuated by Scott Davis' minimalist scenic design, Marcus Dashi's expressively dramatic lighting, Lee Eun Nam's helpful animated projections, and an obviously talented, buoyant cast of theater veterans—the show manages to give hints and possibilities of achieving that emotionally-touching vibe it wants to achieve. But at this, well, early stage in its (likely) ongoing evolution, the gathered chunks pieced together to make the show as it stands now is, at best, still a work-in-progress.

It probably didn't help matters along when the production suddenly also announced a slight delay because one of the two lead actors had to be recast, which likely meant more rehearsal time and reconfiguration were needed for a proper launch trajectory. These things happen, of course (just ask Sutton Foster), so some leeway seems pertinent.

But in the show that played Wednesday evening, perhaps a longer gestation period was needed.  I foresee that with some further tinkering and refining, this new musical can find some grounded footing and a clear direction as to what it wants to be as it continues performances and newer productions down the pipeline.

Part metaphorical character study of human interactions and behavior, and (somewhat) part romance-fantasy story that tries to explore the depth of true love and genuine connection, this genuinely charming but disjointed musical, in its current iteration, struggles from an identity crisis—much like what happens to the show's lead female character who finds herself having a literal out-of-body experience she can't explain.

While the show is certainly blessed with clever, melodic, mood-setting songs that harken singer/songwriter vibes (think Sara Bareilles' WAITRESS) and some intriguingly hypnotic choreographed movements laced with moving pathos (courtesy of Julia Rhoads) that do feel like the fantasy sequences this musical desperately needs, the realities that are presented in the musical don't feel very real either.

That, for me, is at the heart of the musical's biggest flaw: this grounded "realness" being introduced by its two central lead characters don't quite mesh with the show's multiple tonal shifts and the sudden inclusion of a strange bit of inexplicable magic that is thrust upon them from, literally, out of nowhere that doesn't seem to freak them the fuck out one bit.

Review: PRELUDE TO A KISS Returns to South Coast Repertory as a World Premiere Musical
Karen Ziemba and James Moye. Photo by Matt Gush.

There was not even a hint of such a supernatural event coming, nor do we even actually believe something magical even transpired because the show, for some reason, chooses subtlety over actual musical theatricality (we do see—SPOILER ALERT—some birds fly across the background to signal something strange just happened).

Perhaps it's just me… but if I'm part of an audience that is presented with such a thematic narrative jolt in a musical, why couldn't we have been afforded a bit more of that magic—I don't know… a special effect or two? Some overt acknowledgment through an erratic, almost unhinged song? And how about spending a bit more of the show's now-expanded two-act structure to really explore the darkly comical and melodramatic absurdity of an old, assumably straight man now honeymooning and co-habiting with another man decades younger than him who still believes he married the love of his life, but is now acting kinda strange?

But first… okay, let me back-track a bit.

This time set in the modern-day, nondescript "Northeast," the main story of PRELUDE TO A KISS' musical adaptation—which remains thematically similar to Craig Lucas' original source materials—still follows the unlikely, almost instantaneous romance that blossoms between straight-laced publishing firm worker bee Peter (the very likable Chris McCarrell) and punk-fashioned, part-time bartender/prospective graphic artist Rita (the intriguing Hannah Corneau), two random strangers who meet at a party and then fall madly in love within the course of, what seems like, a few sentences.

If the notion of "opposites attract" is actually a thing, then Peter and Rita are supposed to personify it. Displaying clear loner tendencies, Peter seems reserved but highly observant, tinged with an endearing affable demeanor despite a slight cynicism that's been honed by a less-than-ideal upbringing. Rita, on the other-hand, appears to be an unabashedly defiant anarchist with a "fuck you" doom-and-gloom attitude. She's not super optimistic about the future, so she surprises Peter by admitting she doesn't even want to have kids.

But somehow, they are mutually smitten… and each allows to reveal vulnerabilities with one another. It's indeed an unconventional love story, and we do revel in their mutual discoveries of each other's quirks.

Rita seems to find his awkwardness endearing. Peter, in turn, shows empathy (and maybe even concern) when she admits matter-of-factly that she has been "sleepless for fourteen years."

They mutually recognize that they are both clearly wounded by life and are needing of care. I suppose one can argue that the heart of the story is the way it highlights two wandering souls that finally find one another amidst an ocean of fellow humans to balance each other out.

Review: PRELUDE TO A KISS Returns to South Coast Repertory as a World Premiere Musical
Chris McCarrell and Hannah Corneau. Photo by Matt Gush.

Their subsequent flirtation and courtship seems cute and charming enough, but, to be honest, it's nothing earth-shaking by any means. In my notes during the show, I scribbled down "needs more palpable bliss," during these fleeting scenes of them falling in love.

Though both McCarrell and Corneau are clearly talented and musically-gifted, respectively, in their own right, their rapport and chemistry doesn't seem to be as overtly obvious just yet as one would have preferred. My suspicion is, perhaps, that chemistry will become progressively more evident as they notch more performances under their belts… after all, McCarrell just stepped into the role weeks ago, and is a doing pretty great job considering.

So, six weeks pass and—boom!—they decide to marry!

Peter doesn't have a family to break the news to but Rita, it turns out, does.

She introduces Peter to her lovely, caring parents, played by the fantastic pairing of the goofy James Moye and the gloriously giddy Tony Award-winner Karen Ziemba, two actors who clearly enjoy playing off each other's characters. The adorably darling feisty couple instantly wins Peter's (and the audience's) heart, welcoming their future son-in-law with open arms, open hearts, and open beer bottles, which Peter happily accepts.

In one of the show's most (and quite possibly only) smile-inducing moment, Rita's dad whips out a banjo to lead an impromptu living room performance (a fun ditty called "Whatever My Little Girl Wants") for their guest, a moment that also reveals Rita's hidden talent to an even more enchanted Peter who eagerly joins in on the fun and the family nice-ness he likely hasn't personally experienced in years.

This whirlwind romance, of course, takes a surreal, fantastical turn when, on the couple's big day, an elderly stranger named Julius (Jonathan Gillard Daly), who harbors a secret longing for reliving his youth (though this isn't really evident at the time he appears), unexpectedly shows up and requests to kiss Rita on her wedding day.

Rita, perplexed but strangely intrigued, allows the kiss.

In an unexpected twist of fate, Rita's and the old man's souls switch bodies (!) after their shared smooch.

Confused about what just happened, Rita (now in Julius' body) flees, while Julius (now in Rita's body) is elated by his new form, then proceeds to go on a honeymoon trip to Jamaica with his new "husband." Julius, for his part, seems to be okay with this youthful new feminine persona—so much so that he continues with the ruse despite Peter's growing suspicion. Rita (in Julius' body), we learn later, retreats to the address she finds in her new body's pockets.

These turn of events, naturally, forces a perplexed Peter to grapple with the sudden change in "Rita," slowly realizing that the woman he loves is, suddenly, no longer the same. The slight differences he notices in her behavior has him wondering whether he knew Rita at all, setting Peter on a journey of self-discovery and heavy introspection. Along the way, he encounters a diverse cast of characters who offer insight, humor, and wisdom, ultimately leading him to confront his own fears and insecurities, which, I suppose, in turn delivers a universal lesson for all about the importance of cherishing every moment we are given in life and to embrace the qualities—good and bad—of every single person that enters our lives.

Review: PRELUDE TO A KISS Returns to South Coast Repertory as a World Premiere Musical
The cast of PRELUDE TO A KISS - THE MUSICAL at South Coast Repertory.
Photo by Matt Gush.

Many questions, of course, arise. Will Peter and Rita's love survive despite such a drastic change of fate? And, most importantly… why the heck did the soul-switch happen in the first place?

A good first draft of a potentially resonant new musical, PRELUDE TO A KISS - THE MUSICAL could use a sharp refocus and some more magical and narrative clarity, which seems to already be present in the show here and there, but is hampered by the clashing of competing themes, too-subtle messages, and divergent motifs.

Ultimately, the musical really needs to decide where it needs to lean—is it a deeply emotional musical drama? An unapologetically romantic magical mystery? A more approachable dramedy with an engaging fantasy/supernatural bent? As it stands, I'm not quite sure what specifically this new musical adaptation is trying to say/sing.

However it decides to evolve, the show does, above anything else, need to spell out the "why" of the show's most important, plot-driven event: the kiss (I mean, heck, it's in the damn title). Such a magical occurrence seems to be a decisive catalyst for so many life-altering decisions for our main couple, so why not embrace it and make it a signature moment with lots of lead-ups and recalls?

When I left the theater, my friend and I were still puzzled as to why the switch happened, and if the switch happened only for the benefit of Julius who, clearly, enjoyed his newfound youth (albeit in a female body) so much more than Rita did.

Much of the music is interesting and enjoyable, but most of the songs feel like stand-alone tunes that, sure, fit the respective spots they show up in in the narrative, but many don't particularly advance the story, even as the ensemble cast does a terrific job performing them with palpable verve. The songs—with the vibe of similar tunes in shows like FIRST DATE or even THE LAST 5 YEARS—evoke too-heady concepts rather than what is actually transpiring, which seems slightly counterproductive even if they sound really, really pretty.

Nonetheless, there are lots of standout songs in the show, particularly the hypnotic chaos of the opening " A Little Light," the memorably metaphorical "Love in the Age of Anxiety" (the show's best song), and the fun numbers featuring Moye and Ziemba (the aforementioned "Whatever My Little Girl Wants" and "Happy Wife, Happy Life / Entropy"). Peter and Julius' 11 o'clock duet "This Body" is effectively poignant.

A few supporting characters also get standout moments in their featured songs. I especially love the vocal work on display via the two main characters' best friends: Peter's pal (and his best man at his wedding) Taylor, played by the charming Jimmie "J.J." Jeter, gets several spotlights, including the opening number and "In the Movies," while Rita's work BFF Angie, played by the gorgeous-voiced DeAnne Stewart, gets her own standout moment singing with McCarrell in "A Map Of Us." Later, another lovely song late in the second act is sung by the character of Leah played by Julie Garnye, who wistfully reminisces about her "missing" dad Julius in "The Man He Used To Be" that is quite heartbreaking and beautiful.

Review: PRELUDE TO A KISS Returns to South Coast Repertory as a World Premiere Musical
Chris McCarrell and Hannah Corneau. Photo by Matt Gush.

Overall, PRELUDE TO A KISS - THE MUSICAL—in all its jumbled mashup of vibes, themes, motifs, and mood switching—has some relatively good bones to birth something truly more entertaining and emotionally-satisfying with further tinkering (actually, LOTS of tinkering). This outstanding, talented cast truly deserves something more complete and self-assured to sink their musical teeth into… and I applaud them for their valiant efforts in the show that they've started here.

** Follow this reviewer on Instagram / Twitter X / Threads: @cre8iveMLQ **


Photos by Matt Gush, courtesy of South Coast Repertory.

Performances of the World Premiere production of PRELUDE TO A KISS - THE MUSICAL continue at South Coast Repertory through May 4, 2024. Tickets can be purchased online at, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.



To post a comment, you must register and login.

Vote Sponsor