nytheatre.com review by George Hunka
September 20, 2005
Those theatergoers haunting off- and off-off-Broadway spaces for the Next Big Musical need look no further: Dr. Sex is here, singing and dancing his way across the Peter Norton Space stage, on his way to bigger things. And here’s the refreshing bit: the Larry Bortniker-Sally Deering musical is thankfully gimmick-, snark- and parody-free, a good new-fashioned book musical about a least-likely subject, the marriage of sex researchers Alfred and Clara Kinsey.
If you’ve seen last year’s Bill Condon film Kinsey, you know the story: Indiana U. zoology professor Alfred Kinsey, in the midst of studying the mating and reproductive habits of the gall wasp, suddenly finds himself inspired to study the mating and reproductive habits of the human being. Unconsciously, this is a way to examine his own bisexuality; consciously, he hopes to free Americans of the shame and repression responsible for its puritanical attitudes to sex. To these ends, he takes on a male assistant who also becomes his lover, ensnaring himself and his wife Clara in a very complicated marital situation indeed. His studies take him to Chicago and New York, resulting in The Kinsey Report and his ostracism by the academic world. Nonetheless, and for all its weaknesses, his research marks a milestone in the psychic life of Americans, paving the way for a healthier, mature attitude to sex and even love.
Bortniker and Deering take this opportunity to examine the effects of these researches on the Kinseys’ own marriage: surprisingly, this sex story turns out to be a love story, with all the trappings of a Broadway musical, including a boy-girl song sung under the stars (“Here in a Bog”; while blissfully free of parody, there’s a knowing wit at work through Bortniker’s lyrics and Deering’s book). One of the great achievements of this splendid show is that it demonstrates just how far the American musical comedy genre can be stretched without snapping: there’s no nudity, not a four-letter word or a lewd gesture in the evening, and Dr. Sex conforms to the musical comedy standard even to the point of giving Kinsey an inspired eleven o’clock number in which he overcomes his self-doubt and finds redemption in his accomplishments.
This may not be a cast with name stars quite yet, but if there’s a God in heaven it soon will be, and without any recasting. You can have your Liam Neeson; I’ll take Brian Noonan’s Kinsey any day. Noonan metamorphoses from a slightly goofy, repressed college professor in 1919 to a wiser, somewhat chastened public figure in the 1950s, and he does so with a winning smile and even more winning appeal (think of an honest Harold Hill from The Music Man). But Jennifer Simard nearly steals the night in the role of Kinsey’s wife Clara, who similarly, with real emotional power, makes a difficult progression from man-hungry college girl to embittered wife to understanding companion. Her “The Doctor’s Wife” in the second act stops the show in the kind of performance that should get her name on the marquee. Christopher Corts provides gleeful support as the bisexual ingénue.
Bortniker’s toe-tapping score (which finds occasion to go out on a more experimental limb in songs like “What People Really Do When the Lights Are Low”), his witty lyrics, and his and Deering’s clever book, which aspires far beyond the book of most musicals and is a dramatic winner in itself, not once condescends or panders to the audience. This is an adult musical about adult themes, so leave the kids at home, but it’s also adult in the best possible sense: there’s a sincere appreciation and respect for Kinsey’s achievement here and a thoughtful understanding of the emotional turmoil that sexual freedom can engender. There could be nothing better for the American musical theatre these days than for its wannabe practitioners to sit themselves down in front of Dr. Sex to see what can be done without parody, gimmick, preaching, or knowing winks to the audience.
The production was supervised by Greg Hirsch, who keeps things moving with bullet-train speed and confidence. Every Broadway musical must have dancing; Mark Esposito’s choreography, which stylizes Kinsey’s discoveries and gives all this sexual content an appropriate visual and abstract physical dimension, finding in small subtle gestures a wealth of desire, opens up the stage at the Peter Norton Space to seemingly Broadway-sized dimensions. And costume designer John Carver Sullivan knows a thing or two about sexy himself.
Dr. Sex turns so-called “dirty” sex into good clean fun again. And what could be better than that?