NEW YORK — Most performances in the New York Musical Theater Festival begin with low-level frenzy. Ticket-holders, knowing it’s general admission and shows almost always sell out, often can be heard making battle plans. They all want the best seats, and when the house opens, the war begins.
That fighting spirit echoes a basic principle of NYMF. Theatergoers crave a great new musical, and the festival dangles that promise 34 times in three weeks. If tonight’s performance could unearth a real discovery, who wouldn’t want to be front and center to witness it?
NYMF’s reputation and talent roster fuel such hope. If these people gave us “[title of show],” the logic goes, or if they got Kelli O’Hara to star in a workshop, then tonight’s tuner could be spectacular.
Most of the time, disappointment follows but sometimes, that logic bears out.
While it’s too sweet-natured to suit everyone, “Flight of the Lawnchair Man” has the makings of a hit. The story of a Wal-Mart snack bar manager who decides he’d rather learn to fly than stay in his monotonous life, the show takes the unfashionable approach of being whimsical without apology. There are no ironic jokes in Peter Ullian’s book or Robert Lindsey-Nassif’s lyrics — no signs that the musical is making fun of itself.
Instead, there’s a guy who can hit 40,000 feet by tying balloons to his patio furniture while still chatting with his g.f. via walkie-talkie. There’s a brush with destiny as he soars past aviators such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, who sing songs about how he’s fulfilling his purpose by flying.
For those willing to embrace its lunacy, “Lawnchair Man” offers a charming ode to defining one’s place in the world. Tuners have tackled that notion before, but Ullian and Lindsey-Nassif, who also composes, write with enough wit to make the story worth repeating.
As Gracie, the hero’s toll-booth worker girlfriend, Donna Lynne Champlin makes the character confident without being brash. She’s sincere when she says things like, “Everybody should get a job they love. Look at me: I get to collect the funds that maintain I-95 in top condition!”
Gracie doesn’t use her boyfriend to define her life, and Champlin’s choice to play her with such self-assurance adds depth to the show’s theme. The lawnchair man may need flight to be happy, but there can also be contentment on the ground.
There’s an equally earnest thesis in “Hot and Sweet,” Barbara Schottenfeld’s tale of an all-female jazz band trying to make it in WWII Chicago. Like “A League of Their Own” with trumpets, the tuner lobbies for the place of women in any male-dominated arena. Unfortunately, the message gets packaged in a laughably clunky book. Would a male audience member really offend the ladies in the band by shouting, “Let’s see you syncopate your garters?” Can you be insulted by jeers that don’t make sense?
At least the music is memorable, especially as played by the talented ensemble of actor-musicians. Schottenfeld shows a knack for sass on swing numbers like “Jam Ain’t Made in the Kitchen” and “If You Break It, You Buy It,” both of which could set a speakeasy on fire. With a reworked book, the show could have a life.
Other fest offerings feel DOA. Take “Go-Go Beach,” an incoherent parody of 1950s beach movies. Book writer-lyricist John Wimbs is so busy spewing surfer jokes that his characters remain one-note ripoffs of the cliques in “Gidget” movies and Archie comics.
Writer Blair Fell fares better with “The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun,” adapted from his play about unlikely 1960s singing sensation Sister Smile (remember “Dominique”?).
In the campy style of Charles Busch and Charles Ludlam, Fell and lyricist Andy Monroe manage quite a few jokes that are so wrong they’re right, including a wicked zinger about Anne Frank. Monroe’s music hovers between tribute to and parody of hippie folk and brassy show tunes — yes, both — but that’s appropriate for a musical that enrolls Sister Smile in a convent with the Flying Nun and Maria von Trapp.
“Singing Nun” suffers from an unfocused second act, but given time and attention it could be a latenight delight.
The same goes for “White Noise,” which charts the rise of a white supremacist pop group. Based on real-life teen act Prussian Blue, tuner tries to be both a parody and a cultural warning, but the tonal imbalance is jarring. When creator Ryan J. Davis decides on what kind of show he wants, he might be able to cull his best songs — written by various musicians — into a meaty evening. Perhaps the kind of evening that would make auds scramble for a good seat.