Call me (or it) old-fashioned, but in this day and age there’s something refreshing about a musical like “The Goodbye Girl” that makes no claims to be anything other than what it is. Pared down, newly cast and largely rescored following its unsuccessful 1993 premiere on Broadway, this unabashedly sentimental, even sudsy, rewrite of Neil Simon’s 1977 film is likely to meet a rough ride from critics even as it is hailed by what’s left of that carriage trade whose patience has been tried by the West End’s more ambitious recent behemoths.
One could hardly accuse “The Goodbye Girl” of anything approaching ambition. Instead, with a new lyricist in Don Black (“Sunset Boulevard”) replacing composer Marvin Hamlisch’s original colleague David Zippel, the musical exists in a not altogether displeasing time warp that, for all its references to Oprah, “Baywatch” and the like, owes as much to the 1950s — Doris Day as Paula, anyone? — as it does to the ’70s or ’90s.
“What is it with us two and guys?” whines Lucy (Lucy Evans), 11-year-old daughter of Paula (Ann Crumb), a single mother who, the opening song tells us, is “bad with goodbyes, great with hellos.” The arc of the material is as preordained as it was in “It Happened One Night.” No sooner is Paula invaded by unexpected apartment-mate Elliot Garfield (Gary Wilmot), a Chicago actor arrived in New York to play Richard III in drag Off Broadway, than the animosity lets rip. But if you think the enmity will last, you haven’t seen “Chapter Two.”
The material is a given, more or less; the question is one of presentation. Michael Kidd’s Broadway staging elevated a small story to elephantine dimensions. In London, creators of the Olivier Award-winning “Jolson” have stepped in to scale the show back. Now, a dimwitted ensemble aerobics number (“Body Talk”) notwithstanding, the focus is on the three principals (plus Shezwae Powell’s predictably sassy hot-gospel landlady) learning to live as one. True, Paula does say, in an example of American psychobabble guaranteed to drive British spectators to drink, “Before you and I can become us, I have to spend some time being me.” But luckily Elliot is on hand to mock his newly beloved’s fetish for pronouns.
Director Rob Bettinson (“Buddy”), abetted by Robert Jones’ impressive sliding and levitating sets, does a far better job capturing that New York mixture of street smarts and gush than he did in the static “Jolson.” (If only Jenny Cane’s lighting had a firmer grasp of where the actors were positioned.) Indeed, in its unforced wisecracking geniality, this production is considerably more echt-Simon than either the Tom Conti-Sharon Gless “Chapter Two” revival or the lamentable “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” with Gene Wilder, on the West End last year.
A complete blank several seasons ago in “Copacabana,” Wilmot is so effortlessly charming here that he smoothes over the Richard III section of Simon’s book — “Not George, Gyergee,” protests his Eastern European director (played by Michael Mears, aptly cast as an Andrei Serban look-alike) — that was borderline idiotic even in the film; after a thin start, his singing is similarly easeful and confident. Crumb’s acting could be less insistently wide-eyed, but it’s nice to see this fine vocalist softening the hard edges she brought to Rose in “Aspects of Love,” and her rapport with Evans’ expectedly precocious Lucy seems genuinely warm.
Hamlisch’s score, lushly arranged by John Cameron, now seems a peculiar hybrid in which Zippel’s snappy contributions — the forgettable “Who Would Have Thought” for Lucy and chums excepted — suggest another, savvier world from the ballads provided by Black, the last of which, “The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be,” would sound great under the final credits if this were in fact a film. The lyricist is on less comfortable ground with the silly “Body Talk” — it seems odd for Paula, at 35, to be lamenting her body when it is clearly the best one onstage — and “Get a Life,” an angry mother-daughter face-off that marks a desperate attempt to vary the soupy tone. “This show’s gonna run for 100 years,” sings Elliot in an unfortunate I-wouldn’t-tempt-fate lyric. But while “The Goodbye Girl” is unlikely ever to achieve “now and forever” status, it should play terrifically at the Wednesday matinee.