nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
October 10, 2009
If you're one of those knuckle-dragging brutes who loves a good fight, while hiding an equally strong penchant for belting out "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," then finally, there is a show for you. It's called Seeing Stars, and it is playing as part of the exciting New York Musical Theatre Festival.
Centered on the boxing world of 1930s Hell's Kitchen, the story revolves around the final fight of Eddie "Bare Knuckles" McSorley, a champ looking for one more payday before calling it quits. As speculation flies about McSorley's final victim, word spreads that his old rival Gentleman Joe Sullivan, who is also the one boxer Knuckles never defeated, is training again in the dusty gym where both men got their start. What's that you say—a musical about two guys clobbering each other for ten rounds? I don't think so. Enter Jean Barker, a tough-as-nails reporter looking to prove that dames can write about sports. Of course, if she can find someone to spend her life with along the way, that'll be alright too. When love blossoms on both sides of the ring, Jean finds herself in the middle of a good old love triangle, making the final match's purse about much more than just money.
If the idea of a love triangle sounds like something you've heard before, it's because you probably have. That familiarity, however, doesn't really hurt Seeing Stars. In fact, it probably helps, because in knowing what is around the next corner, one is free to pay ample attention to the wonderful songs and, for the most part, well-drawn characters. And Seeing Stars does have some pretty great characters. As a couple of gym rats who've been around since "Dempsey was in diapers," Jerry Jerger and Robert Stoeckle are both crusty yet lovable. Jean Tafler, playing high-society/gossip reporter Angela Arnesson, is a little wicked, but always fun to watch. And putting in some of the best comedic work I've seen is Richard Pruitt. As corner-man Slappy Pat, Pruitt is like a ticket back in time; a direct link to the full-bodied deliveries of actors like Gleason and Lucille Ball. In leading roles, Kevin Earley is always in tune with McSorley's inability to hold up his tough-guy facade as he tries to deal the various pressures facing him. As Jean Barker, Margaret Nichols is fun and feisty, yet never so tough that falling in love seems out of place, and Michael Halling is convincing as Gentleman Joe, even if his character is the least interesting of the group.
Don Breithaupt's music and Jeff Breithaupt's lyrics are incredibly polished and sophisticated, providing audiences of this festival with something much more professional than would be expected for only $20 a ticket. They have also written an exceptionally stellar tune with "Boys Being Boys," a hit that would easily feel at home in the canon of the American musical. Shelley McPherson's dialogue works well in creating a world that is snappy and sharp, yet always charming. However, even with this strong dialogue, Seeing Stars still rests on an all-to-thin storyline, which in the end is tied together in a way that seems easy and unfulfilling. Also noteworthy is director Jenn Thompson, who with Liza Gennaro (choreographer) and B.H. Barry (fight director), has put together one of the most creative finales New York theatre-goers are likely to see.
If Seeing Stars seems decidedly old fashioned, it isn't a bad thing. As far as musicals go, the work here is cut from an older mold, with songs and characterizations more reminiscent of Porter and Hammerstein than Altar Boyz or Next to Normal, two shows that also found their start at NYMF. This classic approach to the musical can end up being what keeps a show like Seeing Stars from finding great success with certain audiences, though if ticket sales for Lincoln Center's South Pacific are any indication, I'd say there is still strong support for theatre of this kind. No matter your taste in musical theatre however, if you like beautiful songs and whimsically creative lyrics, you'll find little to complain about in Seeing Stars: A Boxing Musical.