Illusions are deceiving in new musical at Barrington Stage
PITTSFIELD >> Late in the fitful, ultimately unsatisfying, new musical, "Presto Change-O," which is having its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage, an elder statesman of magicians named Sheldon (Lenny Wolpe in a touchingly resonant portrait of a once-great magician for whom the audience and the magic are becoming increasingly real and literal even while time presses in) demonstrates a trick for his grandson, Michael (a thoroughly likeable and insightful Jerrod Spector) that has to do with tearing a length of thread into pieces and then putting them together whole.
The trick is emblematic of a show that has a lot to say — and even more to sing — about magic as an art of illusion and a craft of reassembling broken things.
In "Presto Change-O," written by Eric Price (book and lyrics) and Joel Waggoner (music) and commissioned by Barrington Stage through its Musical Theatre Lab, the broken element is a family. Its pieces are Sheldon's ambitious, somewhat ethically challenged former son-in-law, Lance (a steadfast Michael Rupert), whom he mentored and watched while he, too, rose to the top of his profession; his daughter, Mary (Barbara Walsh), Lance's ex-wife and former onstage assistant, who is now a high-end Realtor in Connecticut; and his grandson, Michael, who excels in David Blaine-like grand events and stunts and who's been blacklisted by the society of magicians. The extended family draws in Lance's housekeeper and current onstage assistant — an engaging, smart, determined young woman named Tina (played by Jenni Barber with irresistible appeal and understanding), and Michael's uncle, Arthur (Bob Walton), who is in the show only as a convenient plot device and has the show's least necessary song, "Cruise Ship."
The virtually sung-through "Presto Change-o" unfolds on one day in the atmospheric East Side New York townhouse (evocatively designed by Derek McLane) which has been Lance's virtually solitary refuge for roughly 12 years, ever since an episode involving his son that not only created a deep, seemingly unbridgeable fissure between them but also ended his marriage.
After a somewhat manic and derivative prelude, the action gets underway in earnest when Michael, who is feeling the physical after-effects of having spent three days bound within an ice block suspended somewhere in New York's Central Park, turns up, uninvited, to his father's house, seeking shelter and help.
He could not have picked a more inconvenient time. Tina — who has aspirations of her own, which she expresses with delicious abandon in the show-stopping, "Ta-Da!" — is helping Lance prepare for a meeting that evening with some NBC executives to discuss a comeback television special. It is not long before Lane's ex and Sheldon show up — also unexpectedly and unwelcome. It's not giving too much away to say that what begins as the day from Hell for Lance is transformed into something quite else.
It would be nice to report that Waggoner and Price, particularly Waggoner, both graduates of NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program, offer fresh new voices for the musical stage. But Waggoner's music, which serves mostly as an extension of Price's dialogue, is serviceable, unrelenting and, for the most part, forgettable. There are some, dare I say, magical moments, the most magical of which is "If I Were Magic," a thoroughly beguiling love song that, especially as played by Spector and Barber. ties magic, romance, music and character together in undeniably appealing ways, An earlier turn by Spector, "Disappearing Act," in which Michael recounts his childhood relationship with his father and the beginnings of his engagement with magic, is built on a potent combination of haunting melody and revealing memory. And, of course, there is Barber's glorious "Ta-Da!"
What these sequences share is a sense of authenticity; of truth and honesty emerging from the showmanship and contrivance, especially in the irresistible "If I Were Magic."
For all the awkwardness in his engineering of the plot, Price deserves credit for not always taking a predictable turn, especially in his development of the relationship between Michael and Tina. At the same time, "Presto Change-O" is not the most nuanced of shows nor, with the exception of the magic tricks and special effects, the most surprising. And when the story's big reveal does come, it feels arbitrary and a little bit far-fetched. Resolution, for all the angst, comes far too easily. A show that struggles just a bit between a slightly hard edge on one hand and sentiment on the other, resolves on the side of thickly applied sentiment. Just, for example, when you think "Presto Change-O" is going to end on an honest, graceful, affecting note — worthy of the love story that "Presto Change-o" reveals itself to be — with a song called "Come Back," Price and Waggoner have one more scene up their collective sleeve and a shamelessly contrived one at that. In the end, it seems, appearances really are deceiving.
What: "Presto Change-O." Book and lyrics by Eric Price. Music by Joel Waggoner. Directed by Marc Bruni; music direction, Vadim Feichtner; choreography, Chris Bailey
With: Lenny Wolpe, Michael Rupert, Jerrod Spector, Jenni Barber, Barbara Walsh, Bob Walton
Designers: Joseph Wartnerchaney, illusions; Derek McLane, scenic; Alejo Vietti, costumes; Ken Billington, lighting; Brad Berridge, sound
Who: Barrington Stage Company Musical Theatre Lab
When: Through June 11. Evenings — Thursday through Saturday at 7:30. Matinees — Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 3
Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes
Where: St. Germain Stage, Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield
How: (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org; in person at Barrington Stage box office — 30 Union St., Pittsfield
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