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BWW Review: ATC RETURNS WITH TRIUMPHANT NEW MUSICAL

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My 80 Year-Old Boyfriend is an inspiring tale of friendship and healing.

BWW Review: ATC RETURNS WITH TRIUMPHANT NEW MUSICAL

It's a good time to be a theatre fan in the Old Pueblo: The interminable wait is over and the mothership is back in business.

There's a palpable, collective sigh of gratitude as Arizona Theatre Company reopens its doors with a sparkling reception to a community on edge - a triumphant one-woman musical to launch a new season brimming with promise and innovation.

MY 80 YEAR-OLD BOYFRIEND, directed by ATC's artistic director Sean Daniels, is the culmination of a years-long collaborative effort, a labor of love seasoned and refined through painstaking development by a creative team bent on raising the stakes. Hard work has paid off, a finished product worth our protracted withdrawal.

We're not accustomed to this sort of risky output from ATC, so let me affirm the company's audacity to deliver progressive material right out of the gate. One of the galvanizing legacies of Covid-19 was the chance for the company to transform its forced shutdown into a quiet crusade to fine-tune its mission.

Serendipity finds Sean Daniels and his familiar collaborators re-working an erstwhile project in MY 80 YEAR-OLD BOYFRIEND, which had seen a decent run at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Massachusetts. This go-around is an enhanced version, which Arizona audiences are lucky enough to see before it makes its run off-Broadway, scheduled for November of next year.

If the title conjures a trope of rich old men flaunting younger trophy brides, you're not alone. That said, the content proves otherwise; it's a fundamental conceit to draw attention to an oft-deferred matter of ageism, that underrated anathema of social ills. Charissa Bertels, the consummate talent who conceived and stars in the show, is primed to give us a tutorial, from first-hand experience, on how to navigate the age terrain.

At the heart of the lesson, we're made to acknowledge a powerful friendship that defies every societal norm. I wasn't sure I'd buy the premise, but the story of 80 Year-Old Milton got to me.

The production, stripped of inessential razzle-dazzle, is a poignant piece of minimalist theatre rarely seen in mainstream venues. Chalk it up, by and large, to the small-scale nature of one-person experiments, not to mention the modest locales that draw your conventional cabaret audiences. Ms. Bertels transcends that genre as her trove of anecdotes funnels through a comprehensive and critically acclaimed libretto, courtesy of her best friend, Christian Duhamel.

Composer Ed Bell writes a sumptuous score that heightens the narrative, though one can't help but reimagine a texture made lusher by the alchemy of a musical ensemble. That's me thinking outside, if you will. It's not a knock on an otherwise magnificent solo accompaniment by master pianist Jose Simbulan on the baby grand.

BWW Review: ATC RETURNS WITH TRIUMPHANT NEW MUSICAL

MY 80 YEAR-OLD BOYFRIEND begins by recounting the journey of an aspiring triple-threat performer in New York City. The theatre district is a saturated market, everyone knows. Broadway is every theatre actor's dream, but a humbling reality check that forces struggling artists to work odd jobs between auditions.

Young Charissa has the audition circuit down like a pro, but she must eke out a living like a novice until she books a paid gig. We find her opening the show as an earnest hawker of "monkey juice" on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where, amid countless disinterested passersby, she meets Milton, an octogenarian who offers to buy her stack of juices in exchange for a simple conversation.

Despite Charissa's apprehension, the two develop a cordial connection. Milton is prone to blurting out the first thing that comes to mind, often without the requisite filter. It's part of his charm and is in perfect accord with his acerbic sense of humor.

Charissa delivers the juices to Milton's apartment and gets overwhelmed by the opulence he inhabits. It turns out he's a multi-millionaire -- a lonely one. He asks her to stay a while longer to swap stories and play a game of poker. (Transitions are swift and seamless, thanks to Neil Patel's astute scenic design and Brian Lilienthal's lighting ingenuity.)

BWW Review: ATC RETURNS WITH TRIUMPHANT NEW MUSICAL

Milton speaks of his estranged daughter (of whom Charissa reminds him). He's not as forthcoming when she inquires about his wife's picture on the wall, suggesting a deep burden too heavy for casual talk. After a few more visits and regular dinners at various restaurants (she insists on going dutch), they develop a mutual trust and a profound regard for each other's well-being.

It's imperative to state the obvious here: Ms. Bertels, the actress, is charged with a Herculean task we wouldn't wish on most actors. Never mind the requirement to sing and dance; the real challenge is to create a believable arc for a character who isn't there, physically.

Creating an unseen character is not a playwriting anomaly; we're used to relying on other characters to supply the information and generate the illusion of another living soul. But having an audience empathize and identify with a missing character is a rarefied theatrical feat. Hence director-actor partnership factors greatly in delineating differences between two people with distinct temperaments. Daniels and Bertels have rendered a nuanced Milton, drawing out his big heart while ever-so-gently walking the line between authentic quirks and a hackneyed caricature.

To Duhamel's credit, the book ensures that multiple power shifts are deployed as Charissa aims to hold her own in bridging the perceived inequality between her and Milton. Some of the best moments of the show manifest in rapid-fire arguments between them, foiled intermittently by a reflective song-and-dance number. Case in point is perhaps the show's catchiest piece: "Together With You," which is performed as a "duet" and cleverly choreographed by Ashlee Wasmund.

There's an eloquent playwriting detail that serves to deepen the narrative. Charissa and Milton's tale is ultimately a lesson in healing, evinced by her effort to patch up an explosive quarrel resulting from seemingly irreconcilable differences (he can be condescending and downright sexist without knowing it).

Moreover, healing happens in a stirring dual narrative between father and daughter. Charissa gets the necessary closure with an emotionally absent dad who finds the courage to make amends with his daughter. Likewise, with a little nudge from his friend, Milton finds the resolve to reconnect with his own daughter, a sublime coming-of-age achievement for an old man.

Charissa Bertels does it all, truly. Enjoy her singing and dancing and her fervent homage to a special friend. But in case I failed to articulate its comedic premise, I should remind you that MY 80 YEAR-OLD BOYFRIEND is very funny. If nothing else, give yourself a treat and laugh your head off. After all we've been through, I can't think of anything more productive.


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