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A CurtainUp Review
The Joys of Sex

by Les Gutman

South Side Cafe in the Theater District

Jenelle Lynn Randall, Ron Bohmer and Stephanie Kurtzuba
J. Lynn Randall, R. Bohmer and S. Kurtzuba
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Some will be able to think back thirty years to a popular television series called Love, American Style. (For those who can't, it is still available for viewing somewhere on cable, probably right now.) It was considered racy then, and dispatched to a 10 PM time slot, when the kids should be asleep. "Love," after all, was a euphemism for "sex". The Joys of Sex scuttles the pretense of title, updates itself modestly for current sensibilities (it's now OK to have a dildo) and details (the Internet, naturally), but largely seems like an extended episode of that show, set to music. Anyone seeking prurience, hipness or an edge had better look elsewhere; ditto for anyone expecting an examination on the order of Albee's The Goat. Ironically, perhaps, "sex" is largely a euphemism for love.

The Joys of Sex is, for better or worse, defiantly middle-brow entertainment, resting on the bones of a plot that takes it only marginally beyond a revue. The situations are familiar, and it is that recognitional patronage which the show seeks to mine for laughs. We will not try to make it into anything else.

The cast includes two men and two women who, with one fairly brief exception (the length of a song entitled "The 3 Way"), stay coupled heterosexually. The whitebread Howard (Ron Bohmer) and Stephs (Stephanie Kurtzuba) are married and having trouble getting her pregnant; Brian (David Josefsberg), the geeky Jewish kid, is in clumsy pursuit of their sexy (and slutty) black neighbor, April (Jenelle Lynn Randall). It says something that the show is at both its best and its naughtiest when Stephs' grandparents (Josefsberg and Bohmer) are on stage; it's almost as good when Brian's mother (Kurtzuba) visits.

The bookwriters (the lyricist Melissa Levis and the composer David Weinstein) have provided us with a story which, if generally predictable and as skimpy as a sexy negligee, is at least clear and straightforward. Where it falters, as does the direction of Jeremy Dobrish, is in supplying characters in which we can invest. Much effort has gone into finding ways to make the audience laugh; what's been overlooked is that we don't really care what we are laughing about. When (and I am giving nothing away that isn't obvious from the get-go) Stephs finally gets pregnant and Brian and April get together, the joy we should feel doesn't register.

Levis is a graduate of the NYU musical theater program, and a certain her lyric writing reflects her training (though not without a few glaring errors in the rhyme department). What is less in evidence is its artfulness: funny without being clever might be a useful distinction. Mr. Weinstein has delivered a pop-oriented score, with nods to Sondheim et al., which similarly suggests an understanding of the box, but not of a way to break out of it. He has also provided the orchestrations and vocal arrangements, which are quite good. This might be a good point to mention the controversial Sinfonia® (the controversial "virtual orchestra machine) which he employed only after the musician's union backed off a well-publicized protest. Though it may afford some benefit to its operator as distinguished from a more conventional synthesizer, from the audience it sounds the same, and the union, it would seem, has little to worry about competitively: it is not the qualitative equivalent of live music.

The actors do what may be their best with the material they have to work with. Ron Bohmer is a likable and capable performer; as is Stephanie Kurtzuba, and they are a good match. To say they are not all that appealing is to say they are envisioning Howard and Stephs as the sexually-challenged couple they are intended to be. David Josefsberg does well by Brian but practically steals the show as Granny. Jenelle Lynn Randall has the most thankless task as April; her place in the show seems to be based largely on looks and the ability to deliver the obligatory power belt no musical theater writer seems unable to resist.

Neil Patel's set as well as Donald Holder's lighting have an intentionally cheesy quality that seems consistent with the show's tone which in turn seems dated. David Woolard's costumes range from appropriate to appropriately laugh-inducing; David H. Lawrence has done fine work with the hair and wigs.

Whether there is a mainstream audience prepared to pay $69 (a side joke, no doubt) for sex so safe that the title is about as titillating as it gets remains to be seen. For me, the show is summed up by one of its songs, "Not Too Nice," in which April explains to Brian that being too nice doesn't attract much attention.

The Joys of Sex
Lyrics and book by Melissa Levis
Music and book by David Weinstein Directed by Jeremy Dobrish
with Ron Bohmer, David Josefsberg, Stephanie Kurtzuba and Jenelle Lynn Randall
Set Design: Neil Patel
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Costume Design: David C. Woolard
Sound Design: T. Richard Fitzgerald
Hair/Wig Design: David H. Lawrence
Orchestrations and Vocal Arrangements: David Weinstein
Musical Director: Steven Ray Watkins
Choreographer: Lisa Shriver
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes with no intermission
Variety Arts Theatre, 110 Third Avenue (13/14 STS)
Telephone (212) 239-6200
TUES - SAT @8, SAT - SUN @2, SUN @6; $25-69
Opening May 17, 2004, open run-- which turned into an early retirement-- last show 7/13/04
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 5/14/04 performance
Musical Numbers
  • "The Joy of Sex"/Company
  • "0' No"/Stephs
  • "'Cup of Sugar"/April and Howard
  • "Intercourse on the Internet"/Brian and Gladys
  • "The First Time"/Company
  • "One Night Stand"/April
  • "In the Parlor Be a Lady"/Granny and Stephs
  • "Twins"/Howard and Twins
  • "In Our Fantasy"/Company
  • "Kinks"/Brian
  • "The Vault"/Brian, Gladys. Irving, Pleasure Boy and Mistress Pain
  • "The 3 Way"/Howard
  • "Pandora's Box"/Stephs
  • "Free the Tiger"/Stephs, Howard and April
  • "I Need It Bad"/Company
  • "Fantasy Come True"/Howard
  • "Not Too Nice"/Brian and April
  • "Making Love With You"/Company
  • "The Joys of Sex" (Reprise)/Company

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