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Theatre in Review: The Day Before Spring (York Theatre Company)

Jesse Manocherian, Madison Claire Parks. Photo: Ben Strothmann.

Not too terribly long into The Day Before Spring, a show that is struggling to establish an identity, it suddenly -- if briefly -- develops a sharp, satirical slant and a jaunty, couldn't-care-less attitude that simply can't help but cheer one up. We're on a college campus overrun with alumni, almost all of whom seem to be unhappily married, but the action is briefly seized by an undergraduate female named Christopher. She is something of a professional screwball -- among other things, she is on a one-woman crusade to bring back "Shakespearean lingo." ("'Tis not working," she sadly admits.) She also has an older sister who previously occupied these same halls of ivy, about whom she says, "She's a small-minded, domineering bore and I'm glad her husband reeks of trout." (He's in the fish business, you see.)

As you might imagine, the rest of the characters give this junior mental case a wide, wide berth. But Christopher falls, hard and fast, for Peter, a visiting member of the class of 1948, ten years earlier. Peter is such a determinedly unromantic sort -- his career has been devoted to inventing a new form of glue -- that his wife is on the verge of leaving him, but never mind. Christopher will -- must -- have him. Of course, there's that pesky spouse to contend with, so she launches into "My Love is a Married Man," a number with such impudent lyrics and a melody so jazzy it seems to hail from a dark, chic Greenwich Village basement. As wittily staged by the director, Marc Acito, it is a burst of TMI that sends the rest of the company scurrying for the hills. Christopher laments, "The man who controls my heart/Has a conjugal counterpart/And her dinner meals/Are enough, he feels/He'll never have to go à la carte." It's the best Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe song you've never heard.

The Day Before Spring, however, isn't the best Lerner and Loewe musical to escape your attention, however. (This is the second entry in this season's Musicals in Mufti series, staged readings of lost shows, this year devoted to Lerner's oeuvre.) Lerner was a specialist in stories about romance hamstrung by temporal matters -- see Brigadoon and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in which the lovers are from different centuries -- and he has a nifty premise here. Ten years earlier, as seniors at Harvardale University, Katherine and Alex almost ran off to a mountain lodge for a night of love followed by vows of marriage. Alas, his car broke down and they were rescued by Peter, who ended up taking Katherine for himself. Ten years later, she is bored and tired of playing second fiddle to Peter's obsession with all things adhesive. As it happens, Alex has published a novel, The Day Before Spring, which steamily imagines what might have happened had he and Katherine succeeded in making their getaway. (Based on the characters' reactions, page ninety-nine is a real corker.)

At first, Katherine wants nothing to do with the upcoming Harvardale reunion weekend, which Peter and their friends are eager to attend. Once she learns that Alex will be there, however, she anxiously comes along for the ride: Will history repeat itself this time -- only successfully?

Lerner was possessed of an infinite fund of wit, and The Day Before Spring has a decent number of chuckles on hand. I rather liked the agenda for an academic presentation with topics that include "The Bright Side of the Spanish Inquisition" and a professor from Oxford discussing "the intellectual weaknesses of Cambridge." But, as is the case with "My Love Is a Married Man," the fun is entirely ancillary to a plot that nobody involved seemed able to keep in mind. Indeed, like the cast of characters, most of whom are alarmingly ready to jettison their spouses for a quick fling, the musical has a tendency to wander. Among other things, May, married to Peter's best friend, Bill, dallies with Gerald, Alex's personal assistant. Bill and a couple of other alumni keep reprising their sophomoric school song. And Peter runs around, trying to find the attendee whose name he has forgotten -- really? -- but who has invented a solvent that is the key to his glue's success.

With all these tangents to follow, the triangle at the heart of things never gets the attention it requires. Katherine and Peter share so little stage time that it's difficult to care if their marriage survives. Alex, as written (and, in truth, as played by Jesse Manocherian) is a preening, cardboard Hemingway, killing any suspense about whom Katherine will ultimately choose. Not that it matters: Katherine herself is something of a blank, given to standing around, looking pained and sighing; after a while, you begin to wonder what any man would see in her.

This is the second time York has done The Day Before Spring, and it's possible that this version, featuring a one-act adaption by Acito -- which, among other things, eliminates a couple of ballets -- has removed the details that would rouse some interest in this rather obtuse triangle. Somehow, however, I don't think so: Lewis Nichols' 1945 New York Times review sums up the show as a foolish, empty venture in search of point of view, and that judgment squares with the version before us.

Of course, audiences will go for the Lerner and Loewe songs, but the score, written two years before their breakthrough with Brigadoon, is the work of journeymen who, most of the time, are parched for inspiration. The more attractive items include the peppy "Invitation," in which Peter and friends coax Katherine to return to Harvardale; "You Haven't Changed at All," a lovely reunion duet for Alex and Katherine; "The Ill-Tempered Clavichord," an irrelevant, yet amusingly odd, jazz seduction delivered by Gerald to May; and "You Wash and I'll Dry," a waggish making-up ditty for Bill and May. ("All that glitters isn't always gold/There's no guarantee romance will hold/Ev'ry infant knows it/Nevada clearly shows it/That heated love can grow cold.")

But the score is loaded with filler, including the surprisingly pedestrian title tune and a couple of misfires, such as a bizarre interlude in which Katherine confides her problems to busts of Freud, Plato, and Voltaire, who all weigh in with advice. It's a risky, original idea that sadly proves to be thoroughly leaden.

Acito's production is loaded with attractive and talented young people, not all of whom get a chance to shine. As Peter, Will Reynolds shows a real knack for sophisticated comedy, especially when, dipping into Alex's novel, his marital fears have to share space with his irritation at the purple prose. Alyse Alan Louis makes Christopher -- who is little more than a collection of tics -- into a genuine comic creation; she also sells her numbers with strong comedic style. Kent M. Lewis amuses as an irritatingly lockjawed alumnus who likes to show off his success. ("I'm in steel.") As Katherine, Madison Claire Parks is a looker with a lovely voice, and when she gets a nice bit --glaring nearsightedly at Alex to see if his charms have survived the years or walking absentmindedly into the proscenium -- she makes something fun of it. But the character is a pill and there's not much she can do about that.

The Day Before Spring may have the distinction of being the least romantic Lerner and Loewe show, especially since the happy ending has as much to do with that glue solvent as with getting lovers back together. It's possible that this sort of light-minded farce simply wasn't their specialty. Starting with Brigadoon, they began to tell tales with much greater social acuity and starkly dramatic implications. This kind of adulterous farce was really Cole Porter's bailiwick: Maybe Musicals in Mufti can give us Let's Face It! or Leave It to Me. -- David Barbour

(12 February 2019)

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