I caught the second public performance of Bawdy Town The Musical on May 30 at Donovan Middle School in Utica. It has been advertised as a piece of historical theater, weaving elements of Utica’s past into a musical comedy setting. Those scant elements are merely alluded to with a lot of winking and nudging (the city itself isn’t even named.) What David Abraham has written is a Guys and Dolls retread absent good music and wit. It’s breathtakingly bad.
There is a trend in program bios I’ve seen lately, where performers and creative teams laud themselves out of proportion to what they will actually demonstrate in the show at hand. For example, Peter Loftus is referred to in the Bawdy Town playbill as an “artistic genius;” others emphasize they have appeared on stage in New York City, or that they have a Masters degree in theater. This inevitably raises the expectations bar, which is usually knocked down shortly after the house lights dim.
To be fair, it’s difficult to imagine seasoned Broadway vets saving this production. Still, the second musical number was uniquely squirm-inducing. In a nightclub setting, chorus-girl/prostitutes sing “Il Dolce,” with requisite suggestive gestures and posing. (There is no choreographer listed, which is a good career move on someone’s part.) The women spanned the age range from 20’s to 60’s, and for a moment I wondered if my embarrassment was simply ageism. But here’s the thing: sex is uncomfortable for the audience when the performer looks uncomfortable, and the discomfort of these performers ranged from not knowing the songs/dances to obvious reticence about shaking their booty (which must be regarded as fatal in a production titled Bawdy Town).
Another major issue was the age difference in the two romantic pairings. Both featured older men with the youngest of the chorus girls; the actors engaged in the chastest of father/daughter pecks and even seemed uncomfortable holding hands. (Again, fatal in a romantic comedy.)
These difficulties are par for the course in community theater productions, and might have been overcome with commitment and better direction (perhaps from the billed artistic genius?) The technical elements never rose above what one might expect on a middle school stage, although the sound was mostly clear if oddly mixed (voices in duets weren’t at the same level.) The lighting was serviceable but rudimentary, quite sloppily focused, with a preference for odd followspot colors (bright yellow is not romantic.) The set and staging were clunky and flat, and scene changes were long.
The orchestra was placed upstage behind a border curtain flown down to stage level. This provided a curious look because the pipe and wires were clearly visible, but it made sense if at some point the curtain would be flown to reveal the players. It never happened, depriving the audience of what might have been the show’s “aha” moment – the orchestra was surprisingly good and deserved the recognition. Another issue this presented was that the singers needed to look down at video monitors to see the conductor, which was obvious and distracting.
The music is by Dr. Roger Thompson, which caused me to wonder how many good composers have added their title when taking credit? The best thing that can be said for the songs is that they are unmemorably melodic, and almost always short (some ended quite abruptly.) Charles Schneider added tremendously with his orchestrations and conducting, providing class and professionalism far outreaching the material.
David Abraham wrote the book and lyrics based on his own source material, and his name appears a dozen times in the program, so the weight of this dud is on him. The claim of historicity is derived from the fact that Utica was at one time famous for corruption and the quality of its brothels. The corruption and sex in Bawdy Town are presented as unthreatening and cute, with dialogue comprised of every worn-out double entendre a man of a certain generation might remember from the barbershop. (The jokes rarely elicited even groans from the audience, although Sarah Smith generated goodwill with her game delivery.) Most scenes stagnate from too much exposition, where characters describe the plot instead of acting it.
The name Utica was curiously dropped in favor of the fictional “Colossus,” even odder considering that Albany was allowed to keep its own name. The extent of the citizenry is winking officials and dancing girls, all so harmless that even the prosecutors from Albany end up joining the merry band. “Live and let live” is repeated throughout, and this seems to be the show’s milquetoast motto.
Abraham’s lyrics are pedantic in the extreme, testing Sondheim’s adage that nothing beats a perfect rhyme – most lines end in an obvious monosyllabic scheme, so that the word “eyes” telegraphs “lies,” and we dread the cliche before it arrives.
John Murphy has an easygoing charisma and is only slightly overmatched by some of the less predictable melodies; he is enjoyable even if he can’t really sell the material. Alexandra Priore provides a sweet voice and presence. Kevin Matthews has a nice moment with his song “The Irishman,” and looks suitably mortified later when forced to wear red pajamas (ironically, this is the high point in a poorly costumed show; again, nobody is listed for the job.)
The audience I sat with responded best to material that clearly referenced their city’s history, suggesting where Abraham missed the mark or just mis-advertised his show. The one casting coup was local celebrity Richard Enders, who earned more laughs per line than anyone else, on the strength of everyone’s expectations regarding his knowledge of local history, Enders having participated in some of it. More should have been made of those connections. As it is, Bawdy Town is anything but.