It is somehow emblematic of the perplexing disappointments of Lincoln Center Theater’s new musical “Thou Shalt Not” that the liveliest character onstage, by some measure, is a corpse.
This latest stage adaptation of Emile Zola’s feverish novel “Therese Raquin” moves the story to steamy postwar New Orleans. The brainchild of sizzling “Producers” director-choreographer Susan Stroman, with a score by popular crooner-composer Harry Connick Jr., “Thou Shall Not” stars hot young performers Kate Levering (Tony nommed for “42nd Street”) and Craig Bierko (ditto a season prior for “The Music Man”).
That adds up to a lot of potential heat, so it’s all the more peculiar that the temperature of the show scarcely rises to a simmer. Indeed, until the second-act arrival of that suavely crooning corpse, this competent but unexciting musical rarely registers a dramatic pulse.
The corpse — a ghost, really — is personified by the talented Norbert Leo Butz. He portrays cuckolded husband Camille Raquin, a sickly but sweet-enough fellow who is done wrong by his dissatisfied wife Therese (Levering) and best pal Laurent (Bierko). Aside from the changes in time and location, the show hews closely to the arc of Zola’s plot, in which the lovers bump off Camille and are haunted to the point of suicidal despair by his ghost, a specter of their remorseful consciences.
The novel is grim and intense, and much of it documents events taking place inside the overheated minds of Laurent and Therese. In this respect it seems a natural for music-theater treatment, allowing for the characters’ throbbing psychologies to be translated into melody (the novel, coincidentally, is also the basis for a new opera with music by Tobias Picker that preems in Dallas next month).
Unfortunately, Connick’s pleasant pastiches of ’40s song styles are not up to the demanding task of breathing fiery new life into what is, after all, an archetypal love-triangle story. The funky pop-jazz tunes that establish the show’s N’Awlins setting are lively and appealingly performed — Camille’s mother Madame Raquin, a haberdasher in the novel, is now a saloon proprietor played with savvy professionalism by Debra Monk — but no amount of scene-setting gumbo can take the place of the intense psychodrama that should be the focus of the show.
The songs that do give glimpses into the characters’ haunted hearts are a bit wan; they lack excitement and emotional texture. The major love duet, “Sovereign Lover,” is a jaunty, lyrical night-on-the-town number — including a tap interlude — that hardly paves the dramatic way for the murderous business at hand. (Jubilant tap dancing is not, surely, a common prelude to a vicious murder — even in New Orleans.)
It doesn’t help that Levering and Bierko do not strike a lot of sparks as the adulterous lovers. She is certainly lovely to look at but doesn’t come close to conveying the intensity of feeling that could arouse our sympathy for — or at least understanding of — her nasty behavior; an amiable ingenue out of her depth, Levering’s Therese comes across like a singing, dancing Estee Lauder ad. Bierko is likewise a handsome presence, but scarcely more imposing or emotionally vivid as the brutish Laurent.
Some of the fault for the passive impression the performers make must be placed on the thin book by David Thompson, who has not strongly defined these characters. The oppressive nature of the feelings and circumstances that drive Laurent and Therese to murder is not established in the story’s new setting, making their behavior seem arbitrary; after all, a pair of attractive young lovers had many more options in 1940s New Orleans than in the fetid, impoverished corner of 19th century Paris evoked in Zola’s novel.
The only character to really set the audience’s pulse racing is the aforementioned Camille, and even he is far more entertaining dead than alive. Breathing, he looks greasy and sings a moony love song, “All Thing,” and a mildly lilting duet with Therese, “Tug Boat,” with minimal flavor; deceased, he raises the roof with a Sinatra-style toe-tapper, “Oh! Ain’t That Sweet!,” in which he smoothly insinuates his ghostly presence between the desperately disturbed Laurent and Therese.
Butz, who has the only strong voice in the cast, handily stops the show here, as Stroman’s inventive imagination finally fires up in what stands out as both the musical’s most amusing and most dramatically vivid sequence (even if it is decidedly at odds with the show’s dark dramatic tone).
Elsewhere, Stroman’s staging is admirably fluid but her choreography falls back too readily on rote boogie-woogie moves, familiar from “Contact,” and too much shimmying meant to signify sultriness. (The big Mardi Gras number, “Light the Way,” is a particular letdown, and one of a few occasions on which Thomas Lynch’s watercolor sets and backdrops, delicately lit by Peter Kaczorowski, seem a bit skimpy.) It’s encouraging to see dance woven so thoroughly into the texture of a new musical, but the “ballets” that pepper the musical are not examples of Stroman’s best work.
Does Stroman’s failure to shape a compelling show from some promising working parts indicate a lack of focus or a talent stretched too thin? Not necessarily. A lot of talent, a lot of love and a lot of hard work can sometimes result in a lot of nothing, as they essentially and sadly do here. Dat’s da crap shoot dey call showbiz, as Mr. Bierko’s Laurent might put it.