Honore de Balzac’s 1835 novel “Le Pere Goriot” has all the elements of an exciting musical — social climbing hero; scheming ex-convict villain; beautiful, conniving heroines; and a host of comedic paupers. Its canvas is wide, and the world premiere adaptation by composer-lyricist-book writer Matthew Goldsby imaginatively suggests the story’s vast possibilities. Both book and score still need refining, and several portrayals are exaggerated to the point of parody, but the seeds for success are there if Goldsby continues the task of perfecting his challenging material.
Goldsby and director Craig Carlisle instantly secure spectator involvement with their choice of Dustin Strong as Eugene, an eager aspiring lawyer, who lives in a rundown boarding house and wants to break into society through alliances with wealthy, high-born women. Strong’s open smile and innocent manner are ideal masks for his calculated quest. He’s an excellent singer, and his magnetism is the glue that holds together an often scattered series of events.
Two of the women Eugene targets are Anastasie (Taylor Jordan) and Delphine (Leslie McDonel), selfish sisters who ignore their once well-to-do father, Goriot (Norman Snow), and squeeze him dry financially. Eugene is tipped off by a society insider, Madame de Beauseant (Elisa J. Nixon), that he should make Anastasie jealous by pursuing Delphine and falls for Delphine in the process. His infatuation with her glamour and background blind him to the more ethereal charms of Victorine (Makinna Ridgway), a retiring fellow boarder who silently adores him.
More dramatically riveting than the romantic plots and counterplots is Eugene’s uneasy relationship with Vautrin (Fred Sanders), who tries to orchestrate a liaison between the young climber and Victorine for his own nefarious, money-coveting purposes. Vautrin represents the evil path to wealth in Eugene’s life, and he is intriguingly contrasted with burned-out, broken-down Goriot, a man of compassion destroyed by permissive love of his daughters.
Given so many conflicts, Goldsby’s musical (which rates a better, more colorful title) always engages audience interest, although the script and score aren’t a consistently comfortable fit. His melodies are tuneful and sometimes inspired, as in the case of the title song, the appealing duet “I Can Tell” and “Believe in You.” His generally capable lyrics don’t develop, stating premises without building on them. More problematically, characters frequently sing to the spectator, rather than confronting each other.
Aside from the charismatic Strong, the best portrayal here is Sanders’ treacherous Vautrin. The actor resists the temptation to make his character into a dark, sneeringly obvious scoundrel yet keeps his unscrupulous intentions in full view. Snow’s Goriot, on the other hand, needs to embrace subtlety. He suffers and writhes in torment, milking every agonized reaction, and the effect is disconcerting in a small theater that places him so claustrophobically close to the viewer.
The actors sing well, with Donna Pieroni a particular standout, but they slip in and out of period, and such inappropriate lines as “you can do the math” and “she’s nuts for you” confuse feelings of time and place. Ogie Zulueta, portraying an inspector hot on Vautrin’s trail, is funny yet so wildly frenetic and overdone that any semblance of legitimate characterization is lost. Melinda Peterson plays Mlle. Michonneau, the elderly woman who entraps Vautrin. She treats her role as a vaudeville turn, conforming to the furiously farcical approach in act two that gets laughs while diminishing drama and distracting from the main storyline.
“If Only” has a surprisingly sumptuous look, considering the theater’s modest dimensions, highlighted by Gelareh Khalioun’s glittering costumes. Choreographer Courtney Selan enlivens the production with sweeping waltzes and vibrant can-cans.
The show’s conclusion is too downbeat for a musical with such a buoyant, upbeat tone. Fortunately, Strong’s rendition of the powerful “Carry On” has sufficient intensity to leave audiences fulfilled and emotionally satisfied.