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Glimpses of the Moon: Wharton Elegant Affair!

It is always a pleasure to see a well-crafted, witty musical comedy.   Glimpses of the Moon, an original musical based on an Edith Wharton novel and created specifically for the intimate wood-paneled Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, delivers in spades.  Produced by Lemon Tree Productions and written by Tajlei Levis (book and lyrics) and John Mercurio (Music), it is a sparkling valentine to the jazz age.

It is 1922, and Susy Branch (Patti Murin) is a Bright Young Thing, who is popular but penniless, living off rich friends and being delightful, hoping to marry a rich man.  At a party hosted by Ellie Vanderlyn (Beth Glover) and her husband Nelson (Daren Kelly), Susy meets the handsome Nick Lansing (Stephen Plunkett), a student of Greek pottery who is equally charming and impecunious.  The two hatch a plot to marry each other and then sell off the wedding gifts over the course of a year, for once able to support themselves in the style to which they desperately want to become accustomed.  After their honeymoon in a fishing camp owned by their well-connected but also basically poor friend Streffy (Glenn Peters), the two are invited to Ellie's mansion in Newport for the Summer, but when they arrive they find that Ellie is not there.  She's off having an affair, and she's tasked Susy with mailing four letters to her husband over the course of the Summer to make him think she's still at home.  This was brilliantly dramatized by the hilarious "Letters To Nelson", sung by Ellie getting more and more dishabille with each succeeding missive.  Nick takes the time to write an archeological adventure novel (a precursor to Indiana Jones?).

Of course during the Summer that they're supposed to be finding rich spouses, Nick and Susy actually fall in love with each other.  But complications ensue: Streffy's urging Susy to trade up husbands and the appearance of Coral Hicks (Laura Jordan), a frumpy ex-student of Nick's, now all grown up- though she offers him a job on her upcoming archaeological trip to Greece, it's clear that she's got more than Etruscan Vases on her mind.   When Ellie and Nelson return and Ellie mentions the letters to Nick, who was unaware, Nick is appalled at Susy's duplicity, and leaves her.  

At the top of Act II, all of Streffy's long-lived primogenitors die in a freak regatta accident, and he's suddenly Earl of Altringham, has scads of money and wants to marry Susy.  He and Nick discuss it and Nick decides he wants Susy to be happy, so it's best that she marry rich, just as she's always wanted.  Streffy sends Susy to B. Altman's to pick out something nice, where she runs into Ellie, who tells her she's leaving Nelson for Algie Bockheimer, a war profiteer, because he's so very very rich.  This trading up on husbands throws Susy's own situation into sharp relief (especially since Ellie was with Bockheimer when Susy was covering for her), and when she and Nick run into each other at The Oak Room at the Algonquin, where the Cabaret Singer points out what a lovely couple they are, and sings the gorgeous ballad "Right Here, Right Now" (The cabaret singer is played by a different Guest Star at every performance.  Our night was blessed by the luminous KT Sullivan).  

Ellie throws an engagement party for Streff and Susy, but when Susy discovers that Ellie and Bockheimer had their tryst in Streff's fishing shack, Susy leaves him and goes looking for Nick, who has left Coral when she didn't care that his novel had been accepted by Knopf. All ends happily for the two lovers.  If, in the end, it's a road we've all traveled before, it's a beautiful ride.

The cast of six (plus guest star) is flawless, all singing and acting to perfection.  Ms. Murin is a winning and effective heroine, bringing us with her on her emotional journey.  (she is also currently appearing on Broadway in Xanadu- I guess you could say she's "Glimpses of the Moon-lighting").  Mr. Plunkett is full of a passionate naïveté as Nick, and shines in his scenes with Murin.  Ms. Glover is by turns grotesquely maternal and libidinously shallow, but always hilarious, like a 1920s Karen Walker.  Mr. Kelly does fine work with his credulous cuckold role, then shows the man behind the ditz with his ballad "Tell Her I'm Happy".  Ms. Jordan is simply a hoot as the repressed Coral, letting the voluptuary inside sizzle through at appropriate moments.  Mr. Peters negotiates the change from witty bon vivant to draconian Earl quite nicely; his act II opener "Terrible News" is a highlight.

Composer John Mercurio captures the jazzy flair of the 1920s without sacrificing melody.  There is some glorious music here, well-suited to bookwriter Levis' marvelously clever lyrics.  There was not a song out of place; at no point does the evening drag.  Mercurio plays piano for the evening, ably assisted by Geoff Burke on various reed instruments; the handsome musicians are in full view of the audience, and most scenes are staged with the piano as furniture.

The space at the Oak Room is beautiful; although it's really more suited to a cabaret performance (at times I was afraid someone might be kicked in the head by an errant Charleston step), director Marc Bruni stages it very effectively despite these limitations.  There is something wonderful about being so close to the performers, though having one nearly sit on one's lap can be disconcerting.

Costume designer Lisa Zinni keeps everyone looking fabulous, and Deb Gauette's props are evocatively minimal.

Really, the only criticism I had was with the tech- a lot of the scenes near the beginning were strangely back-lit, but I was told afterward that the light board had exploded just before the show and the techies were winging it, so props to them.

This is one of the best new musicals I've seen in ages, and I'd love to see it move on and have a bigger life.  Highly recommended for those who love Wharton, the Jazz age, or plain old great musical theatre.

Glimpses of the Moon
A Jazz Age Musical based on the novel by Edith Wharton
JANUARY 21 - MARCH 10, 2008

Tickets 212-419-9331 or on the Website.

Tickets are $50, plus a $30 food and beverage minimum. (A prix fixe dinner is available for $50.)
Begin the evening with an elegant dinner or cocktails in the Oak Room at 6:30 before the 8:00 show.
Advance reservations are recommended- the show was sold out for its first three performances.

Upcoming Guest Stars:
TBA (2/4) (Performance SOLD OUT)
TBA (2/11)
TBA (2/18)
Susan Lucci (2/25)
Joyce Dewitt (3/3)
Alison Fraser (3/10)

Michael Minarek takes over the role of Nick Feb 19-Mar 10.

Beth Glover as Ellie (photo by Erica Parise)

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