WHAT: Musical comedy about life in the suburbs by Robert S. Cohen and David Javerbaum
WHEN: Through Oct. 8
WHERE: Alleyway Theatre, One Curtain Up Alley
ADMISSION: $18, $10 students
Who would have thought that the suburbs, sugar-coated by 1950's television sitcoms and trashed by 1990's Hollywood (think of "American Beauty"), would provide such rich fodder for musical comedy? And yet in "Suburb," composer Robert S. Cohen and lyricist David Javerbaum have put together an insightful, witty and wonderfully textured musical that takes an honest look at an all-too-familiar American way of life.
The Alleyway Theatre, devoted to producing new plays, has scored a major coup in presenting the world premiere of "Suburb," winner of the 2000 Richard Rodgers Award. Javerbaum, nominated for an Emmy when he wrote for "The Late Show with David Letterman," currently writes for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," and Cohen was resident composer for the National Shakespeare Company. Their talents mesh seamlessly here (they both wrote the book), and the result is a rare opportunity for Western New Yorkers to see a show before it travels to New York City ("Suburb" opens at the Off-Broadway York Theatre in March 2001).
What makes this tale about a young couple, Alison and Stu, who finally decide to move to a town called "Suburb," so compelling is that the music is richly expressive, at turns plaintive and sweetly lyrical, then raucous and vibrant, and the lyrics inventive and visual. It's fair to say Javerbaum is that most unusual of lyricists, a poet who avoids cliches and hones in with pinpoint accuracy on what is truest and most meaningful about the apparently mundane.
In many ways, "Suburb" is reminiscent of the work of Stephen Sondheim, who was clearly an important influence for composer and lyricist. Cohen and Javerbaum present their characters as three-dimensional human beings, not as vehicles to doll up in pretty tunes. When Alison (Loraine O'Donnell Gray) sings "Not Me," a lovely song expressing her doubts about leaving the city, or when, later, she watches kids "Walkin' to School" - a brilliant and upbeat pageant about growth and change - we see what this transition really means to her.
The same depth of character is seen in the other three principals; in Rhoda, the garish realtor (Pamela Rose Mangus), who describes herself as "The Girl Next Door" with "40 pounds more"; in Stu (Paul Maisano), who yearns for the cliched life of mowing ("Mow"); and in Tom (Tom Owen), whose wife's death has reduced him to a life of tinkering ("Handy") and the decision to move away.
Mangus has a fittingly brassy voice, and Gray a warm and clear tone, while the men are sure performers and singers. Maisano, in particular, has a fine comic flair and a strong voice. He and Gray bring a depth to their central roles that helps to ground the entire production. The enthusiastic supporting cast, William Lovern, Keith Ersing, Stephanie Bax Fontanella and Monica Stankewicz, are generally capable singers and confident performers.
There are duets, quartets and octets, witty, touching, lively pieces on lawns - "so throw and catch or stretch and yawn"; on the under-worked local cop, who shows her "firearms to kindergarten classes"; on barbecues that are like pagan rituals extolling the virtues of balsamic vinegar and Worcestershire sauce ("this is the life; how would you like it done?"); on commuting and the haunting "sound of the wheels"; on shopping, moving, repairing and on the way, "coincidence triggers inevitability."
The tone and style vary nicely from song to song and the lyrics are, without exception, sharp-eyed, satirical, and yet, affecting.
Lynne Kurdziel Formato's choreography is lively and Neal Radice's direction sure-handed and imaginative. Radice uses the Alleyway's small stage ingeniously, the pacing is technically perfect, and the many set changes smooth. It is a tribute to Formato and Radice that what amounts to a full-scale musical works so well in so confined a setting. The fine piano accompaniment is by Michael Hake.
What works less well is a small slide screen overhead, which offers distracting and unnecessary pictures of scenes we're already seeing in the lyrics. Then, too, some of the dialogue between musical numbers needs to be tightened and funny lines hit less hard. These faults, however, are nitpicks. What's delightfully easy to see is that "Suburb" is a refreshing, original take on a subject that is too often trivialized or merely mocked.