Conceived by Larry Dean Harris
Book by Martin Casella and Larry Dean Harris
Lyrics by Mark Winkler
Music by Phillip Swann
Additional Music by Jim Andron, Michael Cruz, Harilyn Harris,
Emilio Palame and Larry Steelman
Directed by Sharon Rosen
Starring Sally Mayes
Theatre Row
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

All through the  new musical Play It CoolI kept hearing the voice of  actor-comedian Don Adams in my head, uttering one of his famous catch-phrases  from Get Smart:  "Missed it by that much." The show takes place during the early 50s, in a Hollywood club just off Sunset Boulevard. The open secret is that it's a gay club.  Mary, the butch-dyke owner (Sally Mayes), is a brilliant jazz singer who has  long ago, but for reasons she keeps to hereself, given up singing, preferring instead to groom a hot young protege who also happens to be her lover, blonde bombshell Lena (Robyn Hurder). A friendly cop, Henry (Michael F. McGuirk) takes a little money on the side to keep his fellow brethren on the force from  causing trouble—his sympathies stemming in part from he himself being in the closet (a reveal that comes as no surprise)—but trouble comes anyway in the person of  talent scout Eddie (Chris Hoch), wooing a singer, country-boy Will (Michael Buchanan), just off the bus, to be his new boytoy; while at the same time looking to wrest Lena away from Mary for the movies.

               The show is atmospheric, its cool-jazz vocabulary seductively appropriate, the cast is terrific (and terrifically hip where the music is concerned), and as far  as staging mood and pacing is concerned, so is the direction by Sharon Rosen. But the material keeps subtly misfiring. It makes Henry the cop our periodic narrator and he affects a hard-boiled noir style—yet the story is played out in the manner of musical theatre "realism", sans style comment—so the narration sets up a permission to be parodistic that has no follow-through. The first character Henry brings front and center is Lena, who carries the opening number—but Mary turns out to be our main character. As the story progresses, the stakes fail to be convincingly high: Eddie dangles a dinner meeting with a studio executive in front of Lena, but it's a meeting that will take  place on the very night she has to open for Mary's club. Lena falls for the bait, opting to grab at movie glory, but ultimately the nature of the betrayal is a contrivance, with not enough at stake, certainly not the club: Mary, hurt, simply decides to open without Lena's participation. And Lena's dilemma seems not enough reason to fuel a betrayal in the first place. (Are we seriously to believe—and is Lena, who is portrayed as savvy, seriously to believe—that the executive will be unavailable any other way or time? That  Mary can't adjust her opening? Why not if so? There are ticking clocks here, but they lack consequences with teeth.)  Indeed, just about every story development hangs on the slenderest thread of credibility, one that breaks upon the weight of inspection. And that, not incidentally, keeps the sexual tension that's always alluded to from genuinely smoldering and catchging fire. It all leads to an epiphanal number for Mary in the "Rose's Turn" slot in which she resolves to be what she is anyway, just without caring if she's busted. (At this point I heard Don Adams voice in my head, saying: "That's the second most unearned eleven o'clock number I ever  heard.")

                The score doesn't help much, attractive though it is, because the songwriters—one lyricist (Mark Winkler) who collaborated on one of his lyrics with one of his six composers (Phillip Swann, principal, and "additionals" Jim Adron, Michael Cruz, Marilyn Harris, Emilio Palame, Larry Steelman)—all have strong pop/jazz chops, but no theatrical experience of any consequence, so they do what writers like that always do: re-dramatize or expound upon things we've already intuited or have already been told.  So not only is the story more slender than all the emotional sturm ünd drang around it, its score provides intervals for us to ponder how much is not going on.

                Yet all hands are delivering the goods with pro-level gloss, so the show keeps feeling like it's better than it is. It doesn't crash and burn; rather it reaches and just barely brushes a goal it never quite grabs hold of. Over and over again. To the point where you almost get used to it. Perhaps because the vision of what's intended is so clear, even as the detail work is so out of true.

                 Ironic, really. The show makes so much about how "getting" the jazz of jazz depends upon having it in your blood. Yet the undiluted blood defining the jazz of musicals, which require an equally visceral affinity, isn't coursing through its veins…

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