Such Good Friends
nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
September 29, 2007
Remember when musicals were not ironic? Remember when they centered around complex characters and well-integrated plot lines? When the scores contained emotionally honest lyrics and instantly hummable melodies? When the performers could sing tenderly without being forced to belt like Kelly Clarkson?
This stubborn curmudgeon was happily distracted from the hyper-sardonic musicals on Broadway, and even more happily reminded of the good ol' days, while watching Such Good Friends, now playing in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The makers behind this musical—Noel Katz, who wrote the book, lyrics, and score, and director Marc Bruni—prove that the modern musical need not feature American Idol-esque singers or a sarcastic tone to be entertaining.
Set in the 1950s, during the Red Scare and when television took off as the new medium of household entertainment, Such Good Friends focuses on three old friends who helm a TV variety show—the director, the head writer, and the star comedienne. But when the three buddies are called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to name names, they are in danger of losing their jobs and losing their friendship. The ways in which the characters cope with the national crisis, and the repercussions that follow their actions, neatly represent the drama that Americans endured during Joseph McCarthy's reign.
Even though the second act fares better than the first (primarily because the Red Scare's stakes are initially breezed over), Such Good Friends succeeds simultaneously as an authentic drama and a pleasant musical comedy. Katz's music is distinctively reminiscent of John Kander vamps and Jule Styne melodies, while appropriately tapping into the 1950s aesthetic. Indeed, Katz not only brings forth an old-fashioned feel in the music and content, but in his clever but unpretentious lyrics. When one character sitting in front of the HUAC identifies members of the Group Theater as Communists, it's a mark of Katz's intelligence and admirable ability to find humor in so tragic a time. I only wish the numbers written for the variety show did not play it safe, but really went all the way with the Catskills-style comedy.
As further indication that Such Good Friends may have a life after NYMF, Bruni has assembled an all-star cast. Broadway veteran Liz Larsen, as the star of the show Dottie Francis, pays homage to Fanny Brice (well, Barbra Streisand at least) in her cutely gawky schtick, while also tapping into Dottie's sincere affection for her pals. Armed with the wistful lyric "Romance it's not / but what we've got / is just how I like love," Larsen happily sings her fondness for her chums, while also subtly indicating that with one of them something-else-could-have-been. Jeff Talbott, as the earnest head writer of the trio, is the very embodiment of the kind-hearted friend, smirking sweetly and offering comfort in his long, embracing arms. And as the director Gabe Fisher, Brad Oscar (of Producers fame) delivers with dry deadpan, but after he is put before McCarthy's committee, his casual self-deprecation exposes his vulnerability. The supporting cast all turn in well-rounded performances, especially Joshua James Campbell as a lovable and easily-manipulated nerd sent by the corporate sponsor to supervise the show.
Besides drawing out these multi-faceted performances, Bruni runs the frequent transitions smoothly (thanks in part to Jeff Hinchee's creatively flexible set), and precisely captures the 1950s duality of perpetual paranoia and gleeful innocence. Also shaping the playful staging is Wendy Seyb's choreography, particularly the tap-dancing by the nimble Dirk Lumbard, as a Broadway dancer who introduces Dottie to the comedy-circuit.
That's right: there's tap-dancing. Remember tap-dancing? If you need a refresher, Such Good Friends should do the trick.