Musical numbers: “So Beautiful,” “It’s Not Working,” “When We Danced,” “Lovely,” “Johnsy’s Dance,” “East Meets West,” “The Doctor Is Out,” “Daddy, What Should Your Daughter Do?,” “How Can Love Be Wrong?,” “Rest, My Love, Rest,” “Will the Rain Fall?,” “What Would You Do?,” “I Must Write Her,” “The Song of Kate,” “She Is My Love,” “A Woman Knows.”
There are many simple pleasures to be derived from “O. Henry’s Lovers,” a diverting little chamber musical that opened the American Stage Co. millennium season. Book and lyrics are supplied by playwright-in-residence Joe DiPietro, author of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” and “Over the River and Through the Woods,” a pair of musicals originally produced at American Stage and now enjoying long Off Broadway runs. Inspired by the writings of William S. Porter, who penned more than 200 short stories under the name of O. Henry, DiPietro has fashioned a winsome romantic couplet bonded by the lilting music score of Michael Valenti.
Loosely adapted from “The Last Leaf” and “Schools and Schools,” the narrative focuses on the inhabitants of two Washington Square households shortly after the turn of the century. In a small garret flat, Sue (Jessica Frankel) nurses her ailing lover, Johnsy (Angela Christian), a frail young dancer recently discharged from a ballet company. Across the park lives an artist, Gilbert (Clif Thorn), who has lost his inspiration. Gilbert is engaged to a fashionable doctor’s daughter, Barbara (Donna English), but becomes enamored of the doc’s visiting rural cousin, Nevada (Kelli Rabke).
DiPietro has provided a persuasive thread between the two stories, capturing the wistfully romantic edge that marked O. Henry’s stories. He has also written lyrics that honor the period and the manners of the day.Highlights of the first act are Gilbert and Barbara’s playful mutual admiration in “Beautiful You”; the soaring ensemble waltz “Lovely”; and “East Meets West,” in which Gilbert and Nevada compare their respective cultures.As the widower physician, Mitchell Greenberg also has a genial soft shoe number, “The Doctor Is Out,” that brims with charm and elegance, and “Johnsy’s Dance” provides Christian with a lovely balletic solo turn.
Once the budding romance is firmly established between the artist and the kissin’ cousin, the rest of the tale is telegraphed, and a less vigorous second act suffers from too many labored reprises. (A bright change of tempo might have helped matters.)
In addition to the infectious melodic score, physical assets include an attractive cast topped by the petite, rusty-haired Rabke, who sings like a lark and brings pert and spunky charm to the role of the country bumpkin in the big city.
English is alluring as the jilted sophisticate, and beautifully sings a song about her errant fiance, “A Woman Knows.” Andy Gale is a serviceable author-narrator and Greenberg a wise and dapper doctor. Thorn is a bit stiff as the fickle artist, but sings admirably.
Dale Dibernardo’s muted period costumes, especially the amber and cranberry gowns for the ladies, are subtly striking. A moonlighting Michael Anania, the resident Paper Mill Playhouse set designer, displays tasteful economy on the smaller Becton stage. Functional pastel murals frame the action with a view of a summery Washington Square crowded with horses, carriages and flowery designs.