note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi
Ben Shapiro; Ben Shipley … Ben Steinfeld
The Dancer Upstairs … Kelly Crandall and Jason Lacayo
Luis Mendez … Julio Monge
Abby Sullivan; Ashley Morgan … Haviland Stillwell
Paul; Peter … Gerritt VanderMeer
Irene; Irene Craig … Rachael Warren
Fred; Alan Wetherly … Jay Montgomery
Tom; Simmons … Mauro Hantman
Young Luis Mendez … Darryl Semira
Dad; Vice President … Fred Sullivan, Jr.
Hawkins … Stephen Thorne
Conductor; Piano … Charlie Alterman
Reed 1 … Terry Anthony
Reed 2 … Chris Lussier
Reed 3 … Anthony Grant; Daniel Zupan
Trumpet … Robbie LePage
Trombone … David Marrocco
Bass … Thomas Brinkley
Drums … Mike Sartini
Percussion … Joe DeMarco
The American Musical of today, with rare exceptions, is such a pale version of its former self that Charles Strouse’s YOU NEVER KNOW, in its New England premiere at Trinity Repertory, automatically becomes an Event: Mr. Strouse’s canon includes such popular classics as BYE, BYE BIRDIE and ANNIE, and his MARTY which premiered at the Huntington three years ago was a perfectly respectable work-in-progress (where is it now?); sadly, YOU NEVER KNOW is a disappointment despite thunderous applause on the night I attended. A young composer named Ben holds a workshop performance of an unproduced musical written by his late grandfather Ben about a love triangle between a shady politician, his movie star-wife and a lounge pianist named….Ben. What starts off on a bare stage remains on a bare stage with just enough costume changes and fly-ins to suggest that the actors of the outer musical are becoming the characters, physically and emotionally, of the inner musical, thus Ben the composer and Ben the lounge pianist (played by the same actor) fall for Ashley the NYU singer-dancer and Abby the troubled movie star (played by the same actress), competing against Ashley’s preppie boyfriend Paul and Abby’s husband Peter (played by the same, etc.). Ashley’s own rival Irene trails after Paul and, in turn, becomes Irene the hotel manager who trails after Peter (played by, etc.), and so on. There are several endings to both musicals.
This backstage musical with a Pirandello twist might have worked had Mr. Strouse and his co-librettist Rinne Groff put some down-to-earth heart into YOU NEVER KNOW rather than endless cleverness; whether they are aiming for Something New or keeping one jump ahead of today’s anti-musical audiences, Mr. Strouse and Ms. Groff continuously pull the rug out from under their own efforts --- thus, when the onstage orchestra, up on the second level, begins the evening with what seems to be an Overture, Ben the composer enters, raps a broomstick beneath them for silence and --- surprise! --- this was no Overture, but an upstairs rehearsal, now interrupted. (Half the score is performed on a lone piano, leaving the orchestra to sit in silence, instruments in laps). And so it goes: just as the creators start to get you involved, they will do something to pull you back again. After awhile, YOU NEVER KNOW’s constant distancing backfired and I ended up watching in complete, utter detachment. Mr. Strouse supplies some nice, fleeting tunes, to his credit, but I’ll be damned if I can hum any for you.
The only pleasure to be had is in watching the Trinity regulars take on song and dance following their encounters with Shakespeare and Moliere, and choreographer Christopher d’Ambroise gives them some good staging before he gets his hand slapped by his peers (when was the last time you saw a musical where hopping about was a major dance step?). The three Bens are played by Ben (!) Steinfeld who was good in small doses in the HENRIAD; as a diminutive leading man, Mr. Steinfeld is loud and punchy in the familiar Broadway manner so that everything he does screams “ME!” Haviland Stillwell makes a perky Trinity debut as Ashley/Abby though she is pushed into matching Mr. Steinfeld’s hardness and her silvery upper register, perfect for operetta, nearly gets lost in the process. Fred Sullivan, Jr., entering late in the evening as Ben’s conservative father, contributes a surprisingly restrained performance mainly from the sidelines; Mr. Sullivan becomes the show’s unintended critic when his character exclaims “What kind of musical is this?” and “I’m being tortured!” whereas I’m compelled to say the same thing, only nicer.