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Theatre in Review: Midnight at the Never Get (York Theatre Company)

Jeremy Cohen, Sam Bolen. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The York, which, over the years, has given us seemingly every type of musical, now presents Midnight at the Never Get, a show that invents an entirely new subgenre -- call it existential cabaret. The Never Get is a 1960s Manhattan gay bar -- as one disgruntled employee notes, the name stands for "never get mopped, never get fixed, never get paid" -- and tonight we are to enjoy "a performance of rare taste and exquisite arrangement, a story of desperate intention, a song outside of time," featuring the star attraction, Trevor Copeland. Trevor, a kind of gay Jack Jones, clad in a sporty tuxedo and clinging to his mic for dear life, slips into a slick, witty opening number, "The Mercy of Love."

The song, Trevor says, was written by Arthur Brightman, who is responsible for all of the evening's numbers. Trevor adds, disconcertingly, "I'm just overjoyed to announce that, a few hours ago, Arthur finally died! Oh, don't look at me like that. It means tonight we'll be reunited. And I think he'll like it when he gets here. I've been waiting to share it with him for so long."

What follows is a tribute to Arthur's oeuvre, combined with Trevor's midnight confessions, recounting the rise and fall of their love affair. The two men meet in 1963. Trevor is new in town, from Idaho, an aspiring singer, and Arthur, a native New Yorker, is a pianist and songwriter. Romance beckons in that Neverland known as Greenwich Village, where Julius is the bar of choice, intimate boîtes like the Blue Angel and the Bon Soir launch many a career, and boutique performers like Blossom Dearie are as famous as Judy (no last name needed) or that eccentric young girl named Barbra. As paradises go, however, it is a limited one; in that pre-Stonewall era, Trevor notes, "Loving another man wasn't earnest. It was affected. It was self-aware. It was against the law."

From the beginning, there's a slight disconnect in the affair. Trevor, who freely admits, "I'm one of those 'people who need people' people," always seems more invested in the relationship than the genial, but slightly detached, Arthur. Soon, however, they are openly in love and making beautiful music together. It begins with Trevor trying out Arthur's songs at open mic nights, and -- in part because Arthur refuses to cater to popular tastes by writing ballads with a heterosexual slant -- their collaboration evolves into a once-a-week show at the Never Get, where Trevor performs a playlist of frankly gay material. As he notes: "The whole point of Midnight was that it was sophisticated. Familiar. A show where we were just like everyone else. Just as funny and just as talented and just as much in love."

The songs, by Mark Sonnenblick, who also wrote the show's book, are remarkably literate, jazzy little items that call to mind Cy Coleman's work with Carolyn Leigh; they display a level of craft all too frequently absent from today's musicals. (One imagines that cabaret performers will soon be ransacking this score for material.) In "Wallace Falls," about the stifling Idaho town where Trevor was raised, he sings, "I would do quite well/In a gulag cell/I would gladly pay my dues/Or at Alcatraz/Well, I hear it has/These to-die-for ocean views." (Any songwriter who references the Château d'If, prison home of The Count of Monte Cristo, is all right with me.) And there's "My Boy in Blue," a backhanded tribute to the undercover cops who prowled the bars in those days: "Well, I wouldn't call him sweet/He isn't all that tender/But when he's on his beat/I'm a repeat offender." And he can turn out a wounding ballad with the best of them: "Once you have flirted/Don't ask what if/Starts off the cuff/Ends off the cliff/First you're diverted/Then you're rapt/In the end, my friends/You're trapped."

That last lyric is especially pertinent because, as their shows at the Never Get become a must-see event in the gay community, eventually drawing a number of straights looking for the next hip thing, Trevor and Arthur's relationship is complicated by politics, ambition, and the vagaries of show business. "We were sort of the biggest act that didn't exist," Trevor says, noting that life with Arthur comes with many difficulties: He refuses to write boy-girl numbers, yet he is deeply uncomfortable with the nascent gay liberation movement, deriding those who march in protest as so many hippies who are just "radical enough to ignore." When opportunity comes calling for Arthur, everything falls apart; the little space they have carved out for themselves suddenly looks like a kind of prison. (Despite its obvious fondness for the musical styles of another era, Midnight at the Never Get has little use for the closeted past.) By now, it is obvious that we are getting Trevor's side of the story -- more than once, he tries out different versions of the same scene, working with his piano accompanist, who stands in for the missing Arthur -- and it comes to seem all too likely that the real story may be uglier and more complicated than Trevor wants to admit. By now, it's obvious that we aren't in the Never Get at all, and Trevor is facing a reckoning that is, well, eternal.

Alternately sentimental and hard as nails, Midnight at the Never Get is a remarkable entertainment for several reasons -- the accomplished songs, the evocative portrait of gay life in another era, and its understanding of a certain go-for-broke showbiz sensibility that has always been prized by gay audiences. Sonnenblick's melodies are as pitch-perfect as his lyrics; it's easy to believe that Arthur might be tapped to write for the likes of Eydie Gormé. Sam Bolen, who co-conceived the show, thoroughly nails the kind of slick, ingratiating performer that Trevor wants to be, adding an undertone of desperation that signals bad times ahead. Jeremy Cohen underplays smoothly as The Pianist/Arthur, especially when the latter, offering a dozen excuses, begins to drift away from Trevor.

The designers, Christopher Swader and Justin Swader, have come up with a set -- a dark void illuminated partly by portals lined in lightbulbs, partly by the show's title spelled out in an electric sign -- that is simultaneously glamorous and a little spooky. Jamie Roderick's exceptionally fine lighting uses saturated color to create layered looks and to isolate the principals, all to good effect. Kevin Heard's sound design feels thoroughly natural and Vanessa Leuck has dressed the leads attractively in period evening wear.

As the men's relationship heads into choppy waters, their world undergoes seismic changes. The Stonewall riots set the stage for a new consciousness, portending the end of the closet; later, the AIDS epidemic will ravage the gay male population. By then, Trevor and Arthur are leading lives that neither one of them could have imagined. It's hard to tell if the finale of Midnight at the Never Get -- which climaxes with a shocking switcheroo not be revealed here -- is tragic, upbeat, or a fist raised defiantly at an indifferent Fate; in any case, it's deeply affecting. Arthur, talking about his creative process, says, "A song should be a crystal of emotion, perfectly engineered. Raw honesty? That isn't beautiful." Midnight at the Never Get, for all its showbiz pizzazz, has plenty of raw honesty, and it is a beautiful thing, indeed. -- David Barbour

(15 October 2018)

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