The line is right there in the script, a brokenhearted lover’s puzzled lament at a relationship gone wrong.
“We had such chemistry,” Louise, a Broadway actress on the rise, says after a breakup with her composer boyfriend, Harry — not their first.
Yet one of the most glaring obstacles to Daniel Zaitchik’s ambitious and wonderfully tuneful new musical “Darling Grenadine,” at Roundabout Underground, is the utter absence of romantic chemistry between its leads, who play Harry and Louise. On the page, this show is effervescent. On the stage, for long stretches, it stays flat.
Which is a shame, because Zaitchik is attempting some intriguing storytelling. Set in a fondly retro version of contemporary Manhattan, “Darling Grenadine” begins in a kind of Cole Porter present — a fantasy of New York where the music is lively, the dialogue is snappy and the constant flow of cocktails never impedes the elegance.
Except that Harry, who has been coasting for years on the cash from his one hit commercial jingle, is a not-so-secret alcoholic. Deep in self-loathing, he almost believes the lies he tells about himself — almost believes, too, that life is a party, that all of those drinks are celebratory.
Well, maybe not the ones he sneaks, topping up his morning coffee with a little something from the flask.
At its dark core, “Darling Grenadine” is a musical about addiction, and about the lives caught up in an addict’s diligent self-destruction. It’s about the hope that loving someone can save him from himself, and the smashing of that illusion.
But Zaitchik has written a deceptively fragile work, and Michael Berresse’s production treats much of it with surprising ham-handedness.
This is, mind you, a good-looking production, performed in the round on a spare set (by Tim Mackabee), where clever line-drawing projections (by Edward T. Morris) do much to change the scenery. Tucked away in an alcove, the three-piece band (directed by David Gardos) sounds rich without overwhelming the small space.
There are a few moments in the show so extraordinary that I suspect I will think about them for years. There is also a surprise at the end that you may regret ruining for yourself if you look too closely at the program before then. A credit in there is a dead giveaway.
Yet this production is frustratingly flawed, in a way that does its stars no favors.
Adam Kantor, who plays Harry, and Emily Walton, who plays Louise, seem to have been cast for their singing, which is gorgeous, and for the beguiling way that their voices twine around each other.
But they are a mismatch with the kind of acting that is required. Harry and Louise’s early flirtation depends on a facility with wisecracking screwball style. Because the actors’ tone is off, lyrics and laugh lines with the potential to charm — as in Louise’s silly confessional “Every Time a Waitress Calls Me Honey,” or Harry’s ode to their home borough, “Manhattan” — read as corny or cloying, or both.
It’s hard to tell, actually, why Louise even goes out with Harry after he waylays her at the stage door of her show, where she is in the chorus. For all the compliments he showers on her, he is merely persistent and awkward, not charismatic.
Without that quality, we never like Harry even before he starts falling apart, and it’s crucial that we do. A complicated character with multiple layers to peel away, he isn’t sufficiently realized in Kantor’s portrayal for us to invest much in what happens to him. Neither is Walton’s Louise.
Their acting is broader than it needs to be on such an intimate stage. At the same time, even with a cast of just six, the show feels too large for the low-ceilinged space, as if with a bit more air it might be able to breathe.
There’s some fine acting, though, notably by Jay Armstrong Johnson as Paul, a sweetheart of a human being who is growing weary of getting Harry out of alcoholic scrapes. Mixing drinks at his bar, Standards, Paul is a genuine charmer, as pleasantly soothing as the covers that Harry sometimes plays on the upright piano there.
“The idea,” Harry tells Louise, “is any night you walk in, someone’s playing a tune you know and love. It creates a certain mood.”
That’s apparently the idea, too, behind Zaitchik’s score, which feels familiar yet not derivative, channeling an old-time texture into fresh new music, like the spirited bar anthem “Party Hat” or the effervescent almost-title song, “Grenadine.” A buoyant toast to the teetotal life, that number comes as something of a surprise if, like me, you interpreted the ambiguously staged final moment in Act I to mean the opposite of what Zaitchik intends.
The Harry-and-Louise duet “Every Moon,” though, steps into cringe-cute territory with lyrics debating the pronunciation of “licorice.” Harry, absurdly, argues for “lico-riss.”
Blatantly wrong though he is about that, he does have an adorable dog, who is also named Paul, and who loves Harry unfalteringly, no matter what a mess he becomes.
Onstage, Paul the dog is invisible. We know he’s there because his little red ball bounces in, or his red leash appears, and because we hear him: trumpet notes, gruff or warbling or somewhere in between, played by Mike Nappi.
Handled with great care, this is an exquisitely theatrical device, and it is at the center of the show’s most moving scene. Nappi, standing by clutching his trumpet, makes it quietly wrenching.
It should not be that we care so much more about Paul the invisible dog than about Harry and Louise. But for about two hours, we do.
Then, when the performance is almost done, they have a scene of such poignancy, with such well-modulated acting, that we wonder: What took so long?
Tickets Through March 15 at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, Manhattan; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
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