Cancer! The Musical
nytheatre.com review by David Ledoux
August 15, 2007
Cancer! The Musical brings to FringeNYC another in the grand tradition of shows whose named with one-word titles and then slapping "The Musical" onto it. Cancer!, written by Second City alumnus Shawn Handlon and his brother, surgeon/cancer survivor Tom Donnellon, is an unlikely romance between a cancer patient and her doctor. The shining hope for both Wilson and Owen is that a researcher believes he has found the cure for cancer. Unfortunately an evil pharmaceutical executive has caught wind of the cure from a spy in the research lab, and wants to eliminate it and the researcher by way of a hit man. Both the lyrics and the composition of the 15 songs are by another Second City company member, John Edwartowski.
Cancer! takes advantage of the fact that the subject matter is an unlikely premise for a romantic musical comedy. In doing so, the creators have come up with some very funny moments. Nancy Haydens wonderful performance of various characters begins with her exclaiming that she has found the cure for acne! . . . but it causes cancer. Dustin Gardner's discovery of the cancer cure is hysterical. It involves three mice, a mallet, and a microscope. In general Cancer! works best when it doesn't take itself seriously at all and gives in to the lunacy of the satirical world that's been created for it.
I found that I could forgive a lot of the rough edges of the piece because of the commitment of everyone involved. There seemed to be a real excitement to tell the story. The staging and choreography are sometimes awkward or clumsy, but the style that resulted feels like sketch comedy/parody, which is the authors' background and works some of the time. The problem is that it tries to be more than a sketch—it tries to be a full-out musical comedy, and unfortunately the music is simplistic and uninteresting, so I was more interested in the non-musical moments. If there were fewer numbers there would be a nice satirical, parody feel for the piece and then the music wouldn't have to carry so much of the weight of the story.
Sketch comedy works, when it does, because it is quick and has one strong idea. Where Cancer! didn't deliver was when it tried to be poignant. I felt like the romance was a manipulative device to get the audience to care about these people and it didn't fit into the world of the show. From the start the romance happened too fast and didn't have a logical build, so as the story unfolded I wasn't along for the ride. I felt like my arm was being twisted to care about the relationship, but all I wanted to see was more funny slapstick. But then to be honest, had there been more slapstick, I could well be writing a review about how I wanted more of a story and how I wanted to see the human side of the issue. So I think they are on the right track, they just need to take another look at the development of the story and find ways of making it more truthful and organic.