nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 11, 2005
When I opened the program for The Tutor and found there a list of musical numbers—you know, like in the old days, before the advent of the sung-through show—I felt eager and happy about what was to come. And when the four-person orchestra, led by Ray Fellman at the piano, struck up Andrew Gerle's sprightly, tuneful overture, I was even more ready to embrace this show: an old-fashioned musical comedy would feel really good just now.
But then the opening musical number presented us with three of the show's four main characters: a spoiled, bored, careless Park Avenue momma named Esther who's only interest is to get her "very special" daughter into Princeton; her husband, Richard, who sings his dissatisfaction with his life in counterpoint ("In my dreams / I have sex"); and the novelist they're about to hire to train their daughter for the SATs, Edmund, who smugly sings about the "Stupid Rich Kids" who make him beaucoup bucks for very little effort.
I have to tell you, all of my anticipation melted away. I understood instantly that we were in for 2+ hours in the company of shallow people I didn't like and couldn't care about. I thought: surely at least the hero—the tutor of the title—shouldn't have "sold out" before the show even starts!
Alas, my prediction was borne out by what followed; and alas, nothing that the talented Richard Pruitt (Richard) and Gayton Scott (Esther) could do made the characters or material more palatable: they emerge eventually as kind of an Upper East Side Ropers, she self-involved and leeringly begging for sex, he good-humored but detached and ineffectual. Eric Ankrim, whose resemblance to the young John Ritter reinforced the Ropers image in my head, fares even less well.
There is a great performance buried in here nevertheless, and that's Meredith Bull's turn as the daughter, the unfortunately named Sweetie. Bull sings like an angel in the show's best number, "Feels Like Home," and works hard to make the sullen 16-year-old teenager she's saddled with playing into a living, breathing young woman.
For the record, the story of The Tutor proceeds as follows: Richard and Esther hire Edmund to be Sweetie's tutor. Sweetie shows no interest in studying, but eventually becomes intrigued by the novel that Edmund is writing and quickly becomes his muse. Edmund's novel takes off under Sweetie's influence (it's not clear whether she ever actually learns anything useful for the SATs, however), until one day when Edmund accidentally brings in an old journal in which he described his prospective student (Sweetie) as a "stupid rich kid" and a "cash cow." She is crushed, runs away from home, goes to live with "Vegan people" with whom she eventually attends an animal rights conference in upstate New York where she makes a stirring speech to the crowd and then gets arrested. Edmund travels by bus to find her and take her home, but is arrested for littering; the two wind up in the same jail cell and reconcile. Richard and Esther, whose marriage was on the rocks during Sweetie's absence, also reconcile, and take a bicycle tour across Europe.
To their credit, composer Gerle and lyricist Maryrose Wood know how to write songs for a musical, and several of them are charming. But some feel very misguided: the big second act number, indebted to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" and Jonathan Larson's "La Vie Boheme," urges us not to eat our friends (it's a Vegan anthem); and there's a whole sequence built around a bogus Princeton "fight" song that feels like a very lame copy of "Grand Old Ivy" from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Wood's libretto is riddled with improbable and/or unexplainable oddities, such as why a budding novelist would keep his journal on yellow legal pads, or why very rich parents would send their child's ex-tutor on a Greyhound bus to bring her back from an animal rights rally in upstate New York. The book also fitfully makes use of a gimmick whereby the main characters of Edmund's novel (played with verve by Lucy Sorensen and Raphael Fetta) interact with Edmund in his imagination. Except this is mostly dropped during Act Two; except that they reappear, acting out Richard and Esther's trip to Europe, at the very end of the play. Huh?
Sarah Gurfield's staging is generally competent, though the decision to move Edmund's apartment from its first act location on a platform, above the orchestra, to a different spot in Act Two (stage left, on the ground level) is confusing. Christine O'Grady's choreography is nearly non-existent, which is unfortunate, because the show could use some movement and dancing.
Ultimately, The Tutor is a musical comedy about caricatures of archetypes that we stopped being interested in decades ago; its creators don't even seem to care much about their characters, so how are we supposed to give a hoot? Gerle's music and Bull's earnest, unfettered talent make me eager to see their work in more fortuitous circumstances. But the rest of The Tutor is of very little import indeed.