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A CurtainUp Review

Bright Lights Big City
By Les Gutman

We return to the house that Rent built to see the musical that Rent spawned. And if the comparisons seem obligatory, well, they are. What we see in Bright Lights Big City has been determined by the same people who designed Rent. Director Michael Greif has returned to direct, and has brought along the same set-lighting-costume team. That much of the music sounds like Rent, and that the story is another variation on the coming-of-age in Manhattan theme, is almost incidental.

In Rent, Greif was confronted with the disaster of the death of his playwright, Jonathan Larson, just as the show reached the critical home stretch, the beginning of previews. In Bright Lights, he faces the opposite crisis: a playwright who is not only still on-board but on-stage, and who desperately needs to be given his walking papers. Paul Scott Goodman, a decent songwriter (about which more later), has been cast as himself. With his guitar strapped over his shoulder, he opens the show in the first person, unnecessarily explaining how he came to write the show. He then shifts to the odd second person narrative style which is the signature of Jay McInerney's novel, and creepily lurks about the stage, sometimes playing incidental characters but mostly just interfering.

Bright Lights tells the 1980's story of a week in the life of Jamie (Patrick Wilson), a twenty-four year old who came to New York City to fulfill his dream of being a writer and who now finds himself in a frightfully boring job in the "factual verification department" of Gotham Magazine. The decade-defining novel weaves this story against the backdrop of the sex and drug-dependent club scene, and its interplay with Jamie's sometimes fleeting yearnings for more meaningful relationships (with his erstwhile spouse, Amanda (Napiera Daniele Groves), his recently deceased mother (Annmarie Milazzo), his brother, Michael (John Link Graney) and even one of the seemingly few decent, respectable women of the period, Vicky (Natascia Diaz). Goodman's fleetingly focused musical treads more in the tracks of the anemic film version than the more celebrated and certainly more thoughtful novel on which it is based. Indeed, it accomplishes the almost unimaginable task of elevating the film. It lacks any sense of the power or emotion that gave the novel its glory. Perhaps most disturbing, both Goodman and Greif seem oblivious to time and place -- the sine qua non of McInerney's work.

The musical, like the film, boasts a cast that deserves better. Unlike the film, however, which featured a laundry list of big names (headed by Michael J. Fox as Jamie), the musical unveils a cast of unknowns (nonetheless sporting quite respectable credentials) who are terrific. Patrick Wilson possesses an Iowa farmboy's blend of naïveté and charm. His lithe body ably communicates its anxious fragility as he falls into the after-dark spider's web of city living, and yet retains an earnest foundation that never fully evaporates. The web is spun by Tad (Jerry Dixon), who engineers the festivities that are Jamie's downfall. Amiable and yet manipulative, Tad shares the enticement of sex and drugs with his buddy, but seems to hold the secret for keeping his feet on the ground to himself. Strong and forceful, Dixon has an electric stage presence that controls Jamie's character without ever upstaging Wilson's performance.
The story must people multiple venues: the clubs, the office, the subway, several dream or "vision" sequences and what I will call Jamie's relationships. Most of the cast thus is called upon to perform double, triple and even quadruple duty. Particular standouts include the handsomely-voiced, attractive Groves as Jamie's wife-turned-model, here the ensemble's most impressive singer; Ken Marks, possessing the best comic instincts in the show, especially as the nurturing alcoholic magazine staffer Alex -- the Jason Robards role in the movie; and the young, vivacious Graney who, in multiple roles, proves to be not only the best dancer but also the best chameleon.

The authorial responsibilities here (as in Rent) are shouldered by one individual. Essentially a novice, Goodman (who says in a recent New York Times interview that he is a songwriter, not a playwright or librettist) appears to have bitten off more than he can chew. Whatever one may think of the music and lyrics, the book for this musical is directionless (and not just because Goodman, the performer, irritatingly pulls focus repeatedly). While some of this could be written off as scene-setting in the first act, by the second it becomes clear that no bond is being forged that survives the end of a given song, and that none of the novel's elegantly witty core -- much less any of its characters -- are cognizable. Emphasis, attention and emotion is song rather than story driven, and the eighties are, incomprehensibly, treated with repeated indifference.

While the music in Rent grabs the audience, the Bright Lights score does little more than entertain. (Isn't that something, you might ask? Well, yes, but have our standards really sunk that low?) It is a mixed bag (as are the lyrics), varying from passingly clever and evocative, to undisciplined and imprecise; its dance music is perversely untethered to its era. The sometimes laughably strained lyrics, by contrast, must have missed the ignore-the-eighties marching orders: they seem to conjure up every name and place imaginable, as well as a not-always on-target rhyme. The show's best songs could be eliminated without any loss, and several of the others --  falling in the "not bad" category -- nonetheless have a saccharine quality that is preposterously discordant with texture of the novel.

Angela Wendt's costumes are mystifying. Proprietors of a half dozen second hand clothing stores within a stone's throw of New York Theatre Workshop could have provided racks of eighties-wear, instead of which we get a mish-mash including some retro-sixties garb and a star in thick soled black shoes that scream 1995. (The playbill lists Doc Martens as the official shoe of NYTW, which is almost as funny as Amtrak, its official railroad -- as if this is some coup the Metro-North has missed out on.) An Oscar de la Renta fashion show finds models bedecked in outfits that seem more likely to have been borrowed from a sewing school for blind seamstresses.

The set, a pretty standard scaffolding cum doors setup, is customized with a few panels of skyscraper-scapes. The lighting is actually quite good, but for the nasty habit of leaving singers in shadows when it's time for their solos.

All of this must ultimately be laid at the footstep of Michael Greif. His concept here is questionable and the sloppiness with with it is executed is appalling. Little would be accomplished by detailing the show's elementary blocking fiascoes, much less the mal-understanding of the essential foundations of the story on which it is based. Some of the faux pas are simply inexcusable. When Jamie sings of Vicky's freckles, is it really that outrageous to expect that she has some, even of they are painted on?

And then there is the choreography. Any show in which the club scene is featured prominently could logically be expected to offer some spectacular dance numbers. The absence of a choreographer from the playbill credits should have been a red flag, especially when it is noted that Greif (who has no discernible qualification as a choreographer) receives "musical staging" credit. There are indeed dance numbers, and some of the dancing is serendipitously very good, but it seems to be a purely auto-piloted affair. Any actual musical staging seems to have been limited to keeping people from running into one another.

Following in the footsteps of the Pulitzer and multiple Tony-winning Rent would be a thankless task for any show. But, save for its splendid cast, this one doesn't even deserve the comparison.

Music, book and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman based on the novel by Jay McInerney 
Directed and musically staged by Michael Greif 
starring Patrick Wilson with  Jacqueline B. Arnold, Carla Bianco, Natascia A. Diaz, Jerry Dixon, John Link Graney, Napiera Daniele Groves, Liza Lapira, Ken Marks, Kerry O'Malley, AnnMarie Milazzo and Paul Scott Goodman 
Set design: Paul Clay 
Lighting design: Blake Burba 
Costume design: Angela Wendt 
Sound design:  Jon Weston 
Musical direction and orchestrations: Richard Barone 
Conductor: Joe McGinty 
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street (Bowery/2 AV) (212) 460 - 5475 
. Previews 1/21/99-2/23/99; opened 2/24/99.9 
Seen February 22, 1999 and reviewed by Les Gutman February 25, 1999

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