Musical numbers: “Courtroom Cantata,” “Southern Comfort,” “Thanks to Mom,” “Why Did You Have to Be a Lawyer?,” “I Get Tired,” “That’s a Woman,” “Cottage by the Sea,” “In the Name of Love,” “I Want the Best for Him,” “Don’t Mess Around With Your Mother-in-Law,” “Good Day,” “She Makes Me Laugh,” “Rio,” “At My Side,” “No Further Questions, Please,” “You’re Good for Me,” “Guilty,” “Ain’t He Cute?, ” “Ain’t She Cute?,” “Exactly Like You.”
Old-school Broadway lyricist and composer Cy Coleman and author A.E. Hotchner’s “Exactly Like You” amounts to a pleasant, though ultimately pedestrian, new musical comedy that never manages to transcend the silliness of its book. The situation of a court TV trial between a newly married young man and his mother-in-law amuses up to a point, but not even the lushly varied rhythms of Coleman’s score can salvage the shamelessly cliche-ridden antics. Director Patricia Birch’s good-humored production keeps the action moving buoyantly along, though nothing deeply engages the audience’s attention.
Despite Coleman’s impressive Broadway credentials (including “Sweet Charity,” “City of Angels,” “The Will Rogers Follies” and most recently “The Life”), the small Off Broadway Theater at St. Peter’s seems exactly the right venue for this sweet but insubstantial confection.
A quartet of musicians occupies various roles in designer James Morgan’s makeshift courtroom setting. Judge Maximillian Meltzer (played by musical director Doug Katsaros), whose bench cleverly conceals his keyboard, presides solemnly over the sensationalized case. His stenographer (Donya Lane), also on keyboards, appears to be taking down every word of the proceedings, though occasionally she rises to belt out a few lines of a song. The jury consists of a bass player (Frank Gravis) and a drummer (Donna Kelly), not to mention Georgia-born country singer Winona Shook (Blair Ross) and her good-looking if snobbish Yankee admirer Aaron Bates (Robert Bartley).
Coffee magnate Priscilla Vanderhosen (Susan Mansur) has brought a televised suit against her preppy son-in-law and employee Kevin Bursteter (Edward Staudenmayer) for traumatically locking her in the bathroom while browbeating his young wife Eve (Kate Levering), who has allowed her mother to join them on their Jamaican getaway. The tawdry facts are gleaned through comical cross-examinations performed by the dueling attorneys Arlene Murphy (Lauren Ward) and Martin Murphy (Michael McGrath), whose once happy marriage ended in a bitter divorce. As they clobber each other with objections and counter-objections, one question emerges: Is there any chance the prosecutor and defender can get back together again?
As Hotchner will do anything for a laugh, so Coleman will make any excuse for a song. In fact, the music often seems to be determining the story. The twangy country number “Southern Comfort,” introduces juror Shook, a boisterous, Dolly-Parton-esque songstress, though it’s never clear why she would be called for jury duty in New York.
The South American beat of “Rio” seems to inspire Kevin’s sudden desire to escape a possible guilty verdict by running off to the Pina Colada paradise of Copacabana. But how can a show that’s more like “The People’s Court” than “Court TV” impose jail time on its contestants?
Coleman knows how to write a catchy tune, though the lyrics, which he collaborated on with Hotchner, aren’t particularly memorable. “Don’t Mess Around With Your Mother-in-Law” traipses out both clunky rhymes and ethnic stereotypes that might have earned a chuckle in the ’50s but seem rather tedious today. The soppy ballads that come toward the end seem conspicuously out of place given the relentlessly farcical treatment of the characters.
The standouts in Birch’s cast include Mansur as the humorously implacable mother-in-law and Levering as her obedient debutante daughter. Also notable are Ross, who brings a powerful voice and comic flair to the role of the Nashville superstar, and Ward and McGrath as the bickering co-dependent lawyers.
Birch’s staging wisely exploits the frolicsome side of the musical, never taking any of it too seriously and finding dime-store ways of making it as freshly funny as possible. It’s the perfect tack for a show that would undoubtedly collapse under the pressures of Broadway.