“Musical theater aficionados need get on the good foot to bear final witness to what promises the American musical is aflame and its fire spreading.”
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Fifteen unusual characters. Five odd restaurants. Three memorable actors. One riotous musical. During an era when the demise of the American musical has been heralded, Five Course Love is both unsuspecting surprise and breath of air. Big-name composers are failing to entertain their cults uptown but composer Gregg Coffin has prepared excellent fare downtown that entertains and induces emotional responses at the same time.
Five Course Love occurs one fateful night, when fifteen unsuspecting people frequent five different restaurants in pursuit of sex, love, companionship, or all the above. It is a musical made from five vignettes. Yes, what unfolds is light and cute, but it overflows with heart. The gimmick is, at each restaurant, the three-person ensemble (two men, one woman) becomes three of the fifteen unsuspecting people. In addition, at each restaurant, the ensemble appropriates the musical tradition of the culture from which the restaurant is born. At the beer bar and grill, for example, Western music is appropriated; at the German cabaret, Sprechstimme and liebestod are appropriated; at the Mexican restaurant, the forerunner of Tejano (or Tex-Mex music) is appropriated, etc.
Overall, the greatest vignettes are “Trattoria Pericolo” and “Ernesto’s Cantina.” In the former, the miniskirt-wearing girlfriend of an Italian mobster meets her gelled-hair lover at an Italian restaurant to rendezvous. High drama ensues when the mobster arrives to confront them. All things about the vignette and its clichéd characters scream melodrama and high camp. However, intelligent staging and song help the actors become indomitable forces that stop at nothing to entertain. What is awesome, the vignette appropriates Italian opera seria, and thus the actors emulate the guttural and brooding vocal techniques of opera singers to tell their sordid tale. At each riff and nuance in the music, the eccentricities of Sofia, Gino, and Carlo are magnified tenfold, and the suspense the viewer feels is heightened. In musical theater, singing is an emotional release, and each time one of the actors opens their mouth, the thoughts and feelings of their character are projected. How ironic and innovative to afford low characters the chance to communicate through use of high art.
“Ernesto’s Cantina” is über-comical. A Zorro reject (with a fake mustache) and a guitar-toting musician fight for the affection of a unibrowed Black Swan. That the actors do not maintain straight faces during the vignette—which is chockfull of slapstick, sight gag, sexual innuendo, and a well-placed scabbard—is a testament to the raucous nature of the scene as well as the vigor and liveliness the actors add. All the vignettes are different but united with an ongoing joke—the sound of drinking glasses, plates, and utensils crashing to unseen-kitchen floors is followed with the snap: “Trouble in the kitchen!” In “Ernesto’s Cantina” the snap becomes “¡problemas en la cocina!” Hilarious.
All three actors warrant commendations for their outstanding performances. Each moves from vignette to vignette with ease, making their tasks of becoming five distinct persons with five distinct personalities look like pieces of cake. Actor John Bolton is the star. In 80 minutes, he changes from bifocals-wearing geek to Italian stallion to German changeling to swashbuckling avenger to 1950s matinee idol to bifocals-wearing geek once more. A talented character actor, it is almost as if five actors perform the roles Bolton has been contracted to perform. His antics, comic timing, and over-the-top exuberance attract the viewer, contribute to the success of the musical, and threaten to upstage—succeeding 90 percent of the time—his fellow actors.
The score Coffin has composed is memorable, and boasts several well-written individual numbers that reveal character and advance plot. “Jumpin’ the Gun,” “Give Me This Night,” “Gretchen’s Lament,” “The Ballad of Guillermo,” “The Blue Flame,” “Love at the Lone-Star Tonight,” and “Love Looking Back at Me” are surefire additions to the repertoires of musical theater hopefuls. “The Ballad of Guillermo,” for example, is the theme song for the Zorro reject. In the number, its singer, Ernesto, flubs the words three times, with purpose, to cast Guillermo in a bad light. Each time, Guillermo protests and orders the song started from the top, all before he himself sings the number with self-flattering and exaggerated compliments. Each number from Five Course Love is lilting and makes the musical an entertaining vehicle.
Emma Griffin has done excellent work as director. She has woven one seamless production that does not leave the viewer wanting. Her stage business is smart, suiting the fifteen characters as well as their five respective situations.
Bettie O. Rogers has designed fabulous coiffures. The costumes G.W. Mercier fashions are colorful and suited to their wearers. (His costumes for the German vignette—“Der Schlupfwinkel Speiseplatz”—evoke the 1998 Sam Mendes-directed revival of Cabaret, almost poking fun at that production and its star turns.) His set, however, is sparse—its main feature is the Minetta Lane proscenium arch saturated in silverware. Mark Barton uses lighting effects well, making the restaurants look and feel different from each other.
Musical theater aficionados need get on the good foot to bear final witness to what promises the American musical is aflame and its fire spreading. Alas, Five Course Love closes December 31, 2005, after 16 preview performances, 170 regular ones, and a million laughs for sure.