Friday, August 03, 2012

The Last Smoker in America

When it comes to making theatre--or any sort of art--sometimes "no" is even more important than "yes." Take The Last Smoker in America, an amiable, mediocre musical that opened last night at the Westside Theatre. Peter Melnick's music and Bill Russell's book and lyrics have much to recommend them, but there are so many songs--more than a few completely unnecessary to the story--that they begin to feel relentless. (At one point the impressively talented John Bolton comes on stage with a guitar, and, even though I enjoyed his work a great deal, my gut-level response was, "Please don't sing another song. Please." Never a good sign at a musical.)

The Last Smoker in America is the story of, well, guess. It includes some nice satire of the "nanny state" but it also includes jokes and songs that were outdated years ago. I suppose their datedness may be related to how long it takes to get a show on nowadays, and perhaps the songs were more timely in their youth. But they are no longer in their youth, and that's where the word "no" would have come in handy. For example, should they have kept the painfully annoying song about the white teen who wishes that he were a black gangsta? No.

Belcon, Alvin, Boyd, Bolton
Photo: Joan Marcus
Then there's all the shtick and costume changes that make up much of the show. Why does the anti-smoking robot only respond sometimes when the last smoker tries to light up? Is it because consistency would have been inconvenient to the book writer? Why do the father and son wear Osmond-family-esque costumes at one point? Did the writers, along with director Andy Sandberg, really think it was a good idea? Why?

In all fairness, some of the shtick is genuinely funny. But the mood of the show is never established, and as it goes hither and yon, I kept thinking, what is this? And why should I care?

I then found myself thinking of Little Shop of Horrors, which establishes its tone from the first note and honors it throughout (I'm referring to the original Off-Broadway production). We know immediately that Little Shop is offering silliness with an emotional undercurrent. With Last Smoker, all we know is that some talented people threw in pretty much everything they could think of, without keeping track of the big picture.

To the extent that he keeps things moving and helps the cast calibrate their various incarnations, director Sandberg does an excellent job. But shouldn't/couldn't he have offered an objective eye and some guidance to Russell and Melnick? Or does he genuinely like the show as is? I wonder.

The four-person cast brings great commitment and energy to the proceedings. Farah Alvin, in the lead, is likeable and funny. Natalie Venetia Belcon switches moods on a dime, and her voices, from hypersweet squeaky to scary deep, add much humor to the show. I liked Jake Boyd, which is quite a compliment, since his role is deeply obnoxious and poorly written. And Bolton is consistently entertaining.

A playwright friend of mine once told me that she doesn't get real actors to do early readings of her plays, because "They can't help but make even bad writing sound good." The cast of The Last Smoker of America almost succeeds in hiding most of its flaws, and if the show were 75 minutes with a third fewer songs, it might have worked. But it's over 90 minutes and relentless. More "no" was definitely needed.

(third row, press ticket)

No comments: