In psychological terms, “pushing people’s buttons” refers to the ability of one person to trigger a reaction from another by bringing up a sensitive subject. In theatrical terms, it refers to the ability of a work to strike a chord of recognition in audiences. Both senses of the phrase are applicable to “Reaching Up,” a clever and entertaining musical.
The work is a revised version of “Roleplay,” a musical that premiered at Group Rep in 1989 and later ran at a small New York theater. In its new form, it’s scheduled to be produced Off Broadway in the spring.
The six characters, all women, are members of a therapy group who meet every week to discuss personal problems and try to move forward with their lives. One is a business exec who is trying, unsuccessfully, to balance the needs of her job and family. Another is a former pop singer whose lack of self-confidence is inhibiting her attempted comeback.
The common thread that runs through most of these women’s stories is their willingness to put their own needs on hold in order to serve the people around them. By the show’s end, all the characters have made tentative steps toward fulfilling their own desires, even as they continue to work at being good mates and mothers.
Even after extensive rewriting, the show has some flaws; an attempt at tension to close Act 1 is awkward and unnecessary, and things get wrapped up a bit too neatly at the end. But playwright Doug Haverty has created believable, interesting characters whom the audience ultimately gets to know quite well.
The very listenable music by Adryan Russ comes in a variety of styles (including gospel and doo-wop), and the lyrics by Haverty and Russ are often clever. Some numbers sink into musical psychobabble, but in general the songs have enough of a satirical edge to avoid that pitfall.
Director Lonny Chapman’s production suffers from one casting mistake: Lori Street-Tubert has neither the charisma nor the singing voice neccessary for Dena , the once and future pop star. But the other performers all do good work, and two are outstanding: Pat Sturges, as a lesbian mother of a rebellious teenage son, and Diana Martin as a New Age-obsessed single woman.