Set as McCarthyism was gathering momentum and wreaking havoc on lives and careers, this musical effectively grows darker and more serious as its entertainment-industry characters get caught up in the witchhunt.
photo: Donyale Werle
Reviewed by Patrick Lee
Set during America’s Red Scare, the (NYMF) musical Such Good Friends mostly takes place behind the scenes of a popular television variety show. The three friends of the title who all work on the program (Dottie the star, Gabe the director, Danny the head writer) spend the jovial, vaudeville-flavored first act laughing off the threat of McCarthyism. But they can’t laugh it off in the second act, which begins with their testimonies before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Inevitably, the pressure to name names jeopardizes their friendships, their careers, their lives.
The musical (with book, music and lyrics by Noel Katz) adeptly manages the shift from comedy to tragedy, carefully setting the stage in the first act for the devastating events in the second. There’s enough specificity in the three main characters to make their friendships ring true, and the characters are made all the more convincing by the fine performances of Brad Oscar, Jeff Talbott and (especially) Liz Larsen: each is able to summon up the golden age of television clowns without resorting to winking caricature. The production also benefits from fluid staging, witty choreography and good design work.
But the production’s considerable strengths can not camouflage the two major problems with the material. The less serious one is that Katz has musicalized just about every moment, rather than selecting the ones where a song can most count for something. That becomes fatiguing for the audience, no matter how accomplished the music in his era-appropriate score.
The more serious (but also entirely fixable) problem is that we lose track of Dottie’s moral center. She turns on one friend for naming names, but then she encourages the other to do exactly that. (Worse, she does so while trying to lure the principled friend back to work on her show, which inadvertently makes it seem as if she’s motivated only by selfishness). Similarly, if we’re to believe that the two men could remain pals after one cooperated at the hearings and one did not, we need more convincing than we get from their interactions here.
While these problems keep the musical from having the full force that it could, it must also be said that the material is strong enough to land a punch anyhow. I hope that Such Good Friends gets another chance on its feet: it has the potential to be a knockout.
Closed; formerly at the New York Musical Theater Festival.
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