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Theatre in Review: Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (The New Group/Pershing Square Signature Center)

Caption: Joél Pérez, Jennifer Damiano. Photo: Monique Carboni.

The late Mary Rodgers coined the term "why musical" to denote a show adapted from a play, book, or film that doesn't add anything fresh or new to its source material. This season, first with Sing Street and now with Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, we're seeing a new and disheartening expansion of the term, applying it to musicals in which the songs are irrelevant to the action: They set a tone. They take up time. They prove to be of surprisingly little assistance.

It would, of course, be perfectly possible to do a straightforward adaptation of Paul Mazursky's 1969 film, a blockbuster that earned fifteen times its budget, its title becoming a buzzword for the extramarital swingers who were supposedly pioneering the concept of open marriage. A satire about two Beverly Hills couples who decide to get in on the sexual revolution, the film is all but unwatchable today, but -- in theory, I guess -- the right creative team might have fun with it. Of course, the result might be very much like I Love My Wife, the 1977 Broadway hit about a botched episode of wife-swapping one Christmas Eve in Trenton. Then again, even forty-two years ago, I Love My Wife already seemed a little bit past its sell-by date. It's difficult to understand what -- nostalgia? some perceived parallel to modern-day mores? -- got anyone interested in producing an extremely mild sexcapade from an era that might as well have been the Roaring Twenties for all its relevance to the present day.

Interestingly, I Love My Wife and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice share a number of elements, including a quartet of principals, an onstage band, and a score filled with presentational numbers. But I Love My Wife, silly as it is, has the upper hand, being loaded with jazzy, tuneful melodies (by Cy Coleman) and lyrics (by Michael Stewart) that illuminate the characters and comment wittily on the action. There, I'm afraid, is the rub.

Really, the creators of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice -- Jonathan Marc Sherman (book), Duncan Sheik (music and lyrics), and Amanda Green (lyrics) -- can't really be said to have written a musical. Rather, they've pulled together the elements of one and left them onstage, unassembled. The book scenes play like leftovers from a 1960s Broadway sex comedy -- and not one of the better ones -- frequently interrupted by random songs seemingly transmitted from a radio mysteriously connected to the Summer of Love.

Sheik tried the same approach, rather more successfully, in Spring Awakening -- another musical about the disruptive effects of sexuality -- allowing a cast of nineteenth-century German schoolchildren to make like emo rock stars whenever their hormones boiled over. Here, however, the lyrics are so vacuous as to constitute a kind of verbal wallpaper. When Bob sings, "Who made the rules?/Taught in school/They're for fools/Social tools/We're not ghouls/We are born to be/Wild and free/Forage nuts/We're blood and guts/And molecules," it sounds like something spit out by a computer with a rhyming dictionary. (How did they fail to work in "pools" and "jewels"?) Sheik's melodies are passable Sixties pastiches -- one number, "The Wind in Your Hair," is a reasonable approximation of a Burt Bacharach/Hal David B-side, although David's lyrics would have been better -- but they all share the same cool lounge-music style, ultimately to lulling effect. (It goes without saying that nothing comes close to "What the World Needs Now," the Bacharach-David classic prominently heard on the film's soundtrack.)

The director, Scott Elliott, has rounded up some very bright young talents to lend a little fizz to these scattered proceedings. Joél Pérez and Jennifer Damiano have a good grasp of period style as Bob and Carol, who, following a stay at an Esalen-style retreat, have gotten in touch with their feelings to an alarming degree. ("Bob, it's where we're at. It's how we feel. It's true.") Michael Zegen and Ana Nogueira are even better as the uptight Ted and Alice, who get dragged, kicking and screaming, into a four-way encounter in a Vegas hotel room. (To be sure, he surrenders more quickly than she does.) It's mildly amusing to see Bob and Carol horrifying their friends with the details of their one-night stands, and you have to laugh when Ted, trying to negotiate the evening's plans, says, "First we'll have an orgy, and then we'll go see Tony Bennett." But too much of the dialogue is as inane as the songs, and the show never makes a case for why one should be interested in this airheaded foursome. The singer Suzanne Vega is onstage throughout as the Band Leader, who narrates, contributes vocals, and covers a number of small roles; her presence is functional, if a bit baffling, her manner almost clinically detached.

At least, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice is fun to look at. Derek McLane's hipster lounge set, with its acres of beaded curtains, benefits from Jeff Croiter's tasteful, colorful lighting. Jeff Mahshie has provided closetfuls of groovy threads -- expansive bell-bottoms, Edwardian jackets, A-line minidresses, and wild, wild patterns -- that evoke the era better than anything else in the show. Jessica Paz's sound design, aided by the use of floor and hand mics, has a nice, mellow vibe.

But this is likely to go down as one of the biggest head-scratchers of the season: "What's up with love?" everyone keeps singing in the finale. It's a good question, along with a couple of others: What did anyone involved see in the material? And what did they think their score brings to it? --David Barbour

(5 February 2020)

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