Theater review: 'Some Lovers' at the Old Globe
Burt Bacharach’s patented songwriting style is on luxurious display in “Some Lovers,” the new musical he wrote with Steven Sater, one of the creators of “Spring Awakening.” In fact, there’s such an embarrassment of easy-listening riches crammed into this rather minor chamber piece that it sometimes seems as though an oldies station were broadcasting hits that were familiar in every regard except for the words.
The show, which is having its world premiere at the Old Globe in San Diego, often behaves more like a concert cabaret than a traditional book musical, although don’t come expecting to hear “Walk on By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” or any of the other chartbusters Bacharach wrote with Hal David back in their Dionne Warwick salad days. (A revue called “Back to Bacharach and David” went that route a few years ago.)
“Some Lovers” is an original stage musical (Bacharach’s first since “Promises, Promises”) built around a scenario by Sater in which a man and a woman no longer romantically involved but still haunted by each other look back at their relationship through the prodding of their younger selves. Sater’s lyrics, more generalized than David’s though no less worshipful of pop sentiments, draws out the mellow moodiness that still flows out of Bacharach, now an octogenarian, like water from a golden orchestral tap.
Awash in sentimentality, the piece begins on Christmas Eve and weaves references to O. Henry’s tale “The Gift of the Magi” at every opportunity. “Some Lovers,” which has a few of the hypnotic qualities of “Spring Awakening” without any of its rejuvenating boldness, seems to aspire to be a holiday bauble and should probably be approached — avidly or cautiously, depending on your sensibility — as such. The musical, however, has one major flaw that no amount of seasonal cheer can excuse: The relationship between Molly and Ben is, to borrow a pop phrase from yesteryear, hooked on a feeling, one that simply isn’t dramatic enough for a work lasting longer than a record single.
The production, directed by Will Frears, maintains its likability through the casual intimacy of its four-person singing cast. Jason Danieley and Michelle Duffy play Ben and Molly, with Andrew Mueller and Jenni Barber portraying the couple at an earlier point. The actors don’t look anything alike, which makes the conceit a little hard to accept initially. More problematic is the way the characters are bogged down in a generalized melancholy. (Duffy’s Molly wears the same look of pained muteness for almost the entire show.) But when the performers sing, the monotony lifts and their easygoing charm wins us over even as their story goes nowhere.
It’s the night before Christmas and Molly, stewing in her New York apartment, calls her songwriting ex to let him know that she’s leaving the city. Ben, who’s sitting at the expensive piano that Molly bought for him long ago, clearly wants to extend the conversation, but the backlog of hurt feelings renders their conversation clipped and elliptical. They’re both flamboyantly stuck. It’s been years since they last spoke, yet they’re hanging around Christmas Eve more or less waiting for the other to call. This is either true love or a terminal case of playwriting inertia.
Naturally — or, if we’re being honest, unnaturally — they’re meant to get back together, and so it’s Young Molly and Young Ben to the rescue. They urge their older incarnations to confront the mistakes of the past and confess their lingering ardor. They tote around copies of the O. Henry short story about the husband and wife who sell what each holds most dear to provide a gift for the other. Molly and Ben liked to read the story aloud at the Plaza Hotel on Christmas Eve because that’s the kind of schmaltzy characters they are. Now they will have to enact it if they are to have any chance of recapturing the lost magic between them.
“Some Lovers,” which benefits from the meticulous care of orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and musical supervisor Lon Hoyt, is basically a song cycle sprung to life. The numbers are musically ingratiating (Bacharach’s pop genius is indisputable), but their instant accessibility makes them bleed together, so that much as I enjoyed “A Hit for You,” “A Thousand Things That Were You” and “The Only Music I Understand,” I wouldn’t be able to single them out in a police lineup. The reason may be that Sater’s lyrics, though a natural blend for Bacharach, concentrate on feelings rather than on striking images. As a result, the tunes are touching yet curiously transient.
The ensemble isn’t seamless but it’s definitely distinctive. Mueller brings an appealing scruffiness to the part of Young Ben and Barber locates the ebullience in Young Molly before disillusionment settles in. Danieley’s dapperness is charming, though it’s not clear how Ben manages to keep up appearances given that he’s been epically stalled as a songwriter. Duffy’s dour Molly can be trying company, but when she sings she wins us over.
It’s another sign that the Bacharach-Sater chemistry is stronger musically than dramatically. Here, the orchestra serves as a catalyst for the duo’s gentle-acting strength.
— Charles McNulty
"Some Lovers," the Old Globe, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2. and 7 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Tickets start at $35.(619) 234-5623 or wwwtheoldglobe.org Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Photos: Upper: (from left) Andrew Mueller as Young Ben, Jenni Barber as Young Molly, Jason Danieley as Ben and Michelle Duffy as Molly. Lower: Jenni Barber as Young Molly and Michelle Duffy as Molly Credit: Henry DiRocco