The 2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) ends this weekend after a whirlwind of 21 full productions and 14 readings in less than a month.
While most of the entries will vanish without a trace, a few—like such past productions as “Altar Boyz” (Outer Critics Circle Award), “Yank” (Innovative Theatre Award), “[title of show]” (Obie), and “Next to Normal” (three Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize, no less)—will find major success on and off Broadway after strutting their stuff at NYMF.
If the past is prologue, I’m sure that several of this year’s featured musicals will find producers and audiences at the ready. One of them I’d like to see back onstage in the not-to-distant future is “How Deep Is The Ocean?” (book by Pia Cincotti, with a tuneful score by her singer/musician brother Peter Cincotti.
Let me begin by saying how nice it is to encounter a musical that is funny, sweet, and charming, rather than snarky and too clever for its own good. (By way of contrast, consider the recent “Leap of Faith,” an overblown in-your-face show that perhaps might have found more success if it had had the courage of its convictions and simply told a straightforward story of faith and redemption.) Here’s a little secret: New York audiences actually do have hearts, and they like likeable characters, and they even have been known to root for the underdog.
“How Deep Is The Ocean?” has heart, and it has likeable characters (along with one hissable villain), and it has an underdog—a goofy middle-aged galoot named Rob, played with pitch-perfect dorkiness by Eric Leviton. Rob is the go-to pool guy in Monmouth Beach, New Jersey, where the story unfolds during one summer when the ocean has been declared unswimmable due to pollution.
Rob, who has an almost mystic way with chlorine, is quite content to make the rounds of all the pools in town, eat his tuna sandwiches, and drink Coronas by the case. He is supported in his endeavors by his wife Jackie (well-played by Maria Couch at the performance I attended), who is resigned to coming in second to her husband’s all-consuming obsession with Element #17 on the Periodic Table.
In any event, things are going swimmingly, until Rob, experimenting with various formulations of chlorine, discovers he can actually clean up sea water. He agrees to tackle the polluted ocean, the biggest job of his life, with Jackie at his side keeping him stocked with his tuna and Coronas, and making sure that he is well paid for his efforts. A change in fortune appears to be on the horizon, save for the presence of a jealous rival, Andy (Aaron Ramey), who for years has begrudged Rob’s success and lusted after Jackie.
You never doubt for a minute how it will all turn out, but meanwhile, there is a splendid cast of characters, most of whom are as wonderfully dorky as Rob and display not a hint of “nudge nudge, wink wink.” Peter Cincotti, a jazz pianist who, by the way, is not yet 30, has created a fine score—with elements of jazz, pop, show music, and even a dash of klezmer—intentionally unsophisticated so that, for a welcome change, we have songs that actually sound as if they’d been written with the characters in mind.
In a smart move, the cast includes a couple of “ringers,” including LaVon Fisher-Wilson, who appears in a dream as Rob’s dead mother (it’s said that she died in a chlorine-related accident) and sings a rousing number that leads him to make his breakthrough discovery. (The look on Mr. Leviton’s face when he finally figures out what she is trying to tell him is priceless).
There’s also a cameo song-and-dance by a big-name star (the secret has been out for a while so I feel I can tell you—it’s Tony Danza) that is funny and delightfully charming. It’s unlikely that Mr. Danza would be available to continue doing this, but the idea of bringing in a surprise cameo would only heighten the show’s box office appeal.
What makes this musical work so well is the obvious love and dedication displayed by everyone involved, from the actors, to the directing team of Jeremy Dobrish and Gina Rattan, to the four fine musicians in the band, to choreographer Wendy Seyb, to the scenic designer Edward Pierce (who does so much with so little), and all of the cast and crew. Special kudos must go to Eric Leviton, who so embodies Rob that I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role.
I only have one suggestion, and that has to do with the title. “How Deep Is The Ocean?” is an obvious reference to Irving Berlin’s majestic love song, and is, I suppose, suggestive of the love that Rob feels for Jackie that comes out when he fears he will lose her. But, hey, this is a romantic comedy at heart, and the weight of that reference feels too heavy for it to bear.
My alternate title, which I offer gratis, is “Chlorine” or “Chlorine!” or “Chlorine The Musical!”
But even if the producers foolishly ignore my suggestion, be watching for the return of this delightful musical, which, while I am in the suggestion-making mode, ought to play at an Off Broadway house like New World Stages, where it could settle in for a long and happy run.
If you have enjoyed this column, you can read more of my reviews at my theater blog, Upstage-Downstage, available at [Devi essere iscritto e connesso per vedere questo link]
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