A Musical Comedy Affair
Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Music by Jimmy Roberts
Based upon the screenplay Men by Doris Dörrie
Promenade Theatre / 2162 Broadway at 76th Street / (212) 580-1313

Reviewed by David Spencer

I don’t think I know of a career quite like that of lyricist-librettist Joe DiPietro and his collaborator, composer Jimmy Roberts. Because they have had, with their previous New York shows, a kind of stunning success. Their unpretentious but charming revue about the man-woman dating-mating-marriage game, "I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change" continues in, what, its sixth, seventh year (?) at the Westside Arts, having spawned countless productions worldwide; and DiPietro’s semi-autobiographical play about a young man and his two sets of grandparents enjoyed a very healthy off-Broadway run a few years ago.

And nobody much talks about them.

These aren’t guys who’ve written novelty nonsense like "Nunsense", long running but idiosyncratic, not really a musical but special material, nobody’s example of how it’s done, with a score no one takes seriously. These are guys who’ve written stuff that is craftsmanlike, respectable, entertaining and clearly very durable. If you wouldn’t name them among the greats, they are certainly as accomplished as any of the new generation, and insofar as that measuring rod goes, as good as the game.

So why do they not have the notoriety of LaChiusa, Guettel, Brown, Finn? Because God knows they have been much more successful.

Well, it goes like this…

They’re not out to be adventurous.

They reinforce middle-class mores and values. Their taste is not merely straight, it is preoccupied with things that define what I can only describe as a normal, middle-of-the-road heterosexual existence, and the rituals of its maintenance: men and women meeting, dating, marrying, procreating, growing older together. There’s nothing in their material that’s likely to make you stretch, or think; nothing that objects to–in fact, nothing that doesn’t flat-out celebrate and take joy in–the status quo.

And because of that, they’re not taken seriously. They’re taken, instead…for granted.

And I think maybe they deserve a little better than that. Because there’s something else about their work that you have to consider…

They believe this stuff. It isn’t written cynically, and if marketplace considerations inform their choices here and there (and if so, why not?) it seems secondary. No, they find all this middle-class stuff interesting.

And that’s why they do it as well as they do. There’s not a shred of innovation involved–but it’s their passion. And passion counts up for a lot.

No further proof of this is needed than their latest, a book musical, "The Thing About Men". Of all the properties they might have optioned to base a musical on, why the slight romantic sex comedy screenplay "Men" by Doris Dörrie? The same reason any musical dramatist options a property. Because it speaks to you. Because something in it says to the writers, This has to be sung.

In their adaptation, there is this husband, Tom (Marc Kudisch), an advertising exec, hard working, driven, oblivious to his wife’s needs much of the time–and on the side a womanizer. Well, the tables turn when he discovers that his wife, Lucy (Leah Hocking) is having an affair too. (Which garners what is arguably the evening’s funniest line. "Is he good in bed?" asks Tom. "Oh, Tom," sighs Lucy, "nobody has an affair with someone who’s not good in bed.") Her lover is Sebastian (Ron Bohmer) a free-spirited artist.

His masculinity and his family life thus threatened, Tom goes off to find out just what makes this Sebastian tick, and undermine him.

Now, since this is essentially a triangle play–the other two performers, Daniel Reichard and Jennifer Simard play all the other supporting roles–and also clearly a light comedy, we know (if we choose to think about it) that there will be no vengeance enacted. We know that Tom cannot hold to his anger throughout, therefore he must undergo a change and learn something about himself; we therefore know too (if we care to think about it further) that these two guys, who would seem natural mortal enemies, will in time wind up bonding as friends, buddy-flick style; and we know, finally, that their enlightenment will have an impact upon Lucy’s point of view. It’s a perfectly standard romantic comedy formula and what makes it unique is merely the details of how it’s executed. Therein lie the discoveries, the ironies, the reversals (other than the inevitable über reversal desfribed above) and the fun. So I won’t spoil them here.

I will say only that the tale winks at the sillier clichés of straight masculinity while embracing the more humanist ones; it takes time to allow the woman to express her enlightened I-must-find-myself rage, and then reminds her (and us), as Oz reminded Dorothy, that There’s No Place Like Home.

Similarly, the score–not great, but consistently solid, with a couple of first rate surprises ("Downtown Bohemian Slum" and "The Better Man Won" are moments most musical dramatists would be thrilled to put their names to)–sticks to the point, never lets you forget what it’s up to, and is always attractive, musically and lyrically (and smoothly served up by musical director Lynne Shankel and orchestrator Bruce Coughlin).

The cast is uniformly bright and breezy, under the equally sprightly direction of Mark Clements…and here’s some trivia about Kudisch and Bohmer: the last time they were together onstage, not long ago, they faced off as the villain and hero, respectively, of "The Scarlet Pimpernel" on Broadway, so they have theatrical buddy mojo with serious history–and in the happiest ways, it shows.

In all, it’s clever without being revolutionary, high concept without being high-class concept, and again, a total affirmation of what most people perceive as the standard, American way of life, love and moving through crisis. And if it’s more consequential than a good sitcom with the same goals, well, that’s the advantage of having been musicalized.

And, as I say, all done with conviction and belief. And for all the "Dream True"s and "Floyd Collins"es and "Hello Again"s and their art-house ilk–none of which I’m putting down even slightly, by the way–what would you like to bet that "The Thing About Men" is the one that survives in the canon, ten, twenty, thirty years from now? The industry may still not have the names DiPietro and Roberts right at the tip of its collective tongue, as they would, say, Bock and Harnick (which is another irony, because if you consider the B&H catalog, that same preoccupation with family and mating rituals makes D&R their natural successors), but the titles, "The Thing About Men" and "I Love You, etc." will remain as ubiquitous as a Disney trademark. I’ll just betcha.

Nothing kicks musical audience ass like the eternal verities…

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