“Time and Again,” a musical receiving its Gotham premiere in a chamber production on the Manhattan Theater Club’s tiny second stage, could be compared to an antique easy chair. It’s an innocuous if unexciting piece of stage furniture, more sturdy in some patches than others and uncomfortably overstuffed. Susan H. Schulman’s brisk production does its level best to showcase the musical’s strengths, but the show bears some of the nicks and dents endemic to musicals that take the slow road to New York (it was originally produced in 1995 at San Diego’s Old Globe): A feeling of dogged labor presides in place of a desired romantic inspiration.
The show is adapted from a 1970 novel by Jack Finney more notable for its popularity than the quality of its prose. Lumpen with historical detail, it’s a ponderous read for those not fascinated by its time-travel theme. Adapting it for the stage cannot have been an easy task, and the effort shows in the rushed rhythms of Jack Viertel’s book. (No comment on the unseemly coincidence that finds the musical premiering the week after Jujamcyn theaters, where Viertel is creative director, handed MTC a $50,000 grant.)
Finney devoted about 100 pages to the mystical process by which the main character, advertising art director Si Morley (Lewis Cleale), is whisked back from today to 1882 New York, but here it is sped through in a few sketchy contemporary scenes. (It seems to come down to wearing the right clothes and thinking really hard.)
Aside from a vaguely suggested anomie and a desire to meet the mystery woman who has inspired one of his paintings, Si remains a character drawn in bland watercolors. When, late in the first act, his paramours past (Laura Benanti’s Julia) and present (Julia Murney’s Kate) sing the duet “Who Are You Anyway?,” it’s rather too apposite. Although he may not be blessed with the loveliest tenor, Cleale is a likable performer, and it’s hardly his fault that Si remains a character defined only by plot functions.
That’s a flaw he shares with the musical, actually, and one common to stage adaptations of bulky novels. The parade of incidents in “Time and Again” crowds out the opportunities for creating distinctive characters.
Back in 1882, Si meets and falls instantly in love with Julia (a swoon made no more sensible by her acknowledgment of its immediacy). But she’s engaged to Jake Pickering (Christopher Innvar), who announces himself as bad to the core by way of dark facial hair and his dominating way with the spirited Julia. A budding suffragette, Julia is also involved in the campaign to bring the Statue of Liberty to New York; unfortunately, Benanti’s excessively pert performance invites comparisons to that sturdy dame — it’s prettily sung, but not exactly pliant.
Unbeknownst to Julia, as they said back then, Jake is trying to blackmail the tycoon Andrew Carmody. He sings us the details in a song called “Carrara Marble,” one of several that composer-lyricist Walter Edgar Kennon has written in a familiar pseudo-Sondheim idiom. When they are not evoking that endlessly evoked master, Kennon’s songs are echoing the jaunty style of music hall tunes or surging upward in the generic-romantic sound of today’s Broadway (as in the nice but familiar-sounding title tune).
Far too many of them are mere decoration, however, adding further padding to the show. At the top of the list of unnecessary numbers are both those involving the trolley conductor, as well as charming but overused music hall pastiche “The Marrying Kind.” Viertel’s book might have been more persuasive if it didn’t have to tiptoe around so many competent but unexciting songs. (As a rule, it seems the longer a musical takes to get to a New York stage, the more excess baggage it brings — see “Seussical.”)
Much of the singing is strong. Murney’s steely sound is nicely contrasted with Benanti’s small but lovely lyric soprano on the aforementioned duet, and “The Marrying Kind” is spiritedly performed by Lauren Ward, playing an aspiring actress who resides in the boarding house that’s home to Julia, Jake and their visitor from the 20th century. Her relationship to Dr. Danziger (David McCallum), the fellow who sent Si on his fantastic journey in the first place, adds another thread to the musical’s convoluted story and is central to its happy, if hardly logical, conclusion.
The production also benefits from handsome design work. Derek McLane has brightened the cramped auditorium by decking it in (fake) white brick and paving the floor with a neat facsimile of inlaid marble. Projections on the back wall establish mood and era deftly: A ghostly trail of gas street lamps parade across a background of lace. Ken Billington’s lighting is exquisite and Catherine Zuber’s period costumes are a continual delight. In this auditorium you can even note the excellence of their execution — sashes and ribbons, billows, bustles and piping are all exactingly sewn.
That kind of care also marks Schulman’s direction, which knits together the numbers fairly smoothly and masks some of the rougher junctions of its hard-breathing plot. But neither she nor her designers can supply the kind of magic lacking at the core of the show. Time travel may be effected with the blink of an eye in “Time and Again,” but even Einstein may have had trouble working up the formula for a successful musical in the 21st century.