Waiting tables is tough. Waiting tables in Manhattan? Even tougher. While Brunch: the Musical gives you a humorous glimpse of this occupational endeavor, it lacks the sincerity to truly inspire any of us to empathize with our hungover servers or tip them twenty percent.
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
The tag line for Brunch: The Musical says “there are 60,000 waiters in Manhattan. This is their story.” However, with so many characters compressed into one show, the musical no longer has any real stories—instead it has isolated superlatives over-emotively expressed in song. Queen Bee Brandi (Dana Musgrove) is a yoga instructor three days a week, shockproof Jake (Tony Ederton) wants to open his own bar instead of tending someone else’s, metalhead ROBBY Vee (Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s front man Maxx) is a drummer in an unsuccessful band, ingénue Steph (Cara Babich) was the first in her Midwestern town to just pick up and leave, and our protagonist, shy new girl April (Meghann Dreyfuss) has no clue what she wants to do with her life. These character outlines never develop further, resulting in an evening of predictable stereotypes made bearable by a witty script filled with stinging one-liners and snappy comebacks, but only some of the time. While compensating for the unoriginal plot outline, the script’s tense sarcasm also comes on too strong at times, and, considering the lack of despair, gains no empathy from the audience. While the characters may have a crummy job waiting tables that cuts their weekend short nothing else in their lives are really that bad. They all appear well-groomed and well-fed, and there is no foreseeable life-or-death predicament from which to derive any sense of gritty realism or tough moral decisions. On the upside, without the explicit sex or illicit drugs, the show’s rebellious and youthful energy relies solely on the rock and roll score, which starts off strong, fast, and loud, and keeps it that way.
Musical director Martin Landry keeps a tight beat with a strong rhythm section and collaborative piano underscore that prevents a cookie-cutter Broadway sound. The band performs along the scaffolding above stage left, providing an inventive approach that provides additional room onstage and adds a little more style to the show. Mr. Landry also plays Chef in the play, a hilarious bit part that allows him to continue conducting: he remains in character throughout, never removing his white smock or floppy hat, and conducting with a wooden spoon. While such an enthusiastic band sometimes drowns out the vocals, supporting actors Cara Babich and her costar Bryan Lesnick both hold their own (and take advantage of their strength). Steph may be a fiery, buxom blonde, but Babich’s soulful, husky singing voice softens the rough edges. The same pairing of opposites holds true for Lesnick, playing a slightly spacey but completely adorable Southern transplant named Putnam, and yet sings with a knee-weakening romantic croon.
The choreography keeps up with the music in style and precision, borrowing from modern and hip-hop styles strongly enough to truly stand out. Choreographer Sabrina Jacob and assistant choreographer and ensemble member Collin Frazier do an excellent job matching moves to the characters and music, providing edgy rhythm and great enhancement to the charming vocals. Also keeping with the modern rock theme is lighting designer Christian Deangelis, who uses an array of neon pinks, electric blues and almost-white yellows to the all-black stage. These elements are a tasteful complement to the silent horrors of fine dining, but Emily Deangelis’s costumes push the whole thing overboard. Her hipster-chic getups — leggings, black workboots, leg warmers, untucked flannel shirts, tight tank tops and exposed bra straps — completely contradict the setting (an upscale Manhattan eatery full of Burberry coats and oversized strollers.) By inconsistently portraying this one scene location, Brunch: the Musical instead pursues something generic and overdone in the modern rock musical.
In addition to the rock score, another sincere, relatable aspect of the play lies in the straight script, filled with humorous real-life observations on the perils of waiting tables: dealing with cheapskate celebrities or informing a table that has already ordered that the chef just eighty-sixed a special. The brilliant opening scene depicts the hungover staff sharing the previous night’s escapades as they fold napkins and replace menu inserts, a familiar bonding ritual. Later on, Brandi’s possessiveness for her tables shows the job’s scathing cattiness, and Steve (Kevin Thomas Collins) epitomizes a paranoid manager who hides in his office for most of the day. These gems could speak volumes, but instead the script weakly attempts character development by focusing on cliché themes, such as April’s career crisis or the insecurity complex Steve has when he realizes Jake has more authority and influence over the staff than he does. Such broad personality traits add neither depth nor definition, and this attempt to flesh out the characters instead comes across as forced and simulated. An all too common and universal issue like sexual harassment, for example, is reduced to a couple creepy comments from Steve about “the new girl” — relating it more to the character than the actual nature of the work environment (or the women who tolerate it).
Like a server who lets the stress of a bad shift get the better of him, Brunch: the Musical’s take on the modern twentysomething existential crisis makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. The structural elements of the play – conversational excerpts in the script, music, vocals, and choreography – all make for a promising new piece of musical theater, but they get weighed down by the uninventive personality profiles and internal conflicts of the characters. Sadly, something this predictable cannot be epic: a blooming romance, a fired employee, and a man walking out of a steady job to follow his dream? We know where this is going. If you've never tasted the real thing, Brunch: the Musical might seem like a passable meal, as the snarky humor and energetic music makes for a fun evening and even satiates an afternoon craving for something sweet. However, anyone who's actually worked in the service industry — those who still have their aprons and black clogs in case their day job falls through — won't find much flavor in the bubblegum lyrics and watered-down acting.
Brunch: The Musical (2 hours; one intermission)
The American Theater of Actors (314 West 54th Street)
Tickets (http://brunchthemusical.eventbrite.com/): $18
Performances (through 4/25): Thurs-Suns @8pm
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