Sharp edges have worn smooth in the 22 years since Jay McInerney wrote his bestseller “Bright Lights, Big City.” Paul Scott Goodman’s musical version of this tale of disaffection among the 1980s dot-commers, supermodels and coke warlords of the New York club scene feels pretty tame. It sounds pretty tame, too; instead of slamming, outrageous music, this “rock opera” is easy listening — pleasant but somehow suburban to its core. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a “bright lights, big city” thing.
Sung-through by a cast of solid voices, this show is the latest incarnation of McInerney’s novel. First there was the 1988 movie starring Michael J. Fox. Then, in 1999, Goodman’s first musical adaptation of the story premiered in an unsuccessful production at New York Theater Workshop. Specialty label Sh-K-Boom Records produced a revised version of the score in a studio cast recording, which helped lay the groundwork for this Prince Music Theater premiere.
It begins with a clever moment: A man stands in a spotlight at what is obviously a funeral — we will learn eventually that his mother’s death a year earlier has derailed his life. He approaches the urn of ashes, clutches his chest and, instead of giving way to emotion, snorts some coke. As Jamie inhales, the music begins. “Are we ready to roll?” his friend Tad will ask. “Where are we rolling?” “Into the heart of the night.”
Jeremy Kushnier is, for one thing, too old for the central role of Jamie. Confusing matters further, Marian Murphy who plays his mother (making ghostly memory appearances) is too young — in fact, they look about the same age, more or less 30s.
Jamie’s pal Tad (the sexy Andy Karl), whose song is “Monstrous Events,” nearly runs away with the show. This suits the moral of the story, since Tad represents all that is shallow and meaningless about their druggy, sex-obsessed life.
Jamie works for Gotham magazine (obviously the New Yorker) in the fact-verification department, headed by Clara (the impressive Orfeh). In the novel, Jamie’s literary aspirations and the job play a large role; here, they are merely minor elements, and he seems as unlikely a writer as his love interest Vicky (Julie Tolivar) seems a philosophy major at Princeton (somebody should tell her Jung is not pronounced “young”).
Jamie’s gorgeous wife (Kelli Barrett) has left him for a modeling career in Paris (Barrett has the body and the hair but not the walk or the manner) and, with his life going from bad to worse, Jamie is fired from his job. His brother Michael (Jonathan Shade, with a strong, sweet voice) keeps phoning him until finally they are reconciled in the maudlin “Brother,” sung while they sit on the floor, holding hands, gazing into each other’s eyes.
Repeated scenes of ongoing tabloid stories about a “coma baby” and a girl who has disappeared from Central Park (Alyse Wojciechowski sings “Missing” movingly) never convey the self-disgust Jamie feels about his lurid interest in these daily updates; they’re simply stories.
The staging of the final song is egregiously literal: Jamie is redeemed by Mom, Vicky and Michael (“Heart and Soul” announces their positive influence), and he is now ready to resume his literary life. While he sings “Wordfall,” we see typed words (“kindness,” “mother”) projected onto a scrim.
Many of the songs’ lyrics, lifted directly from the novel’s language, are clever, although the funny number, “I Hate the French,” is hokeyed up by mimed illustration. Some songs (“Happy Birthday, Darling” and “My Son”) provide the backstories of the characters, but these people never come convincingly alive, just as the tunes vanish from memory.
Much of the novel’s strength lies in its narrative point of view: Jamie writes about himself as “you,” as if he were a mere spectator in the car wreck of his life. The pronoun also serves to include/indict/warn the reader — but those readers are long gone, and the show finds no equivalent device.
One night, Jamie hits rock bottom, waking up in a girl’s bedroom in Forrest Hills with her mother knocking on the door because she’s late for school. Turns out she’s 14, and the brief scene is a predictable cautionary tale — not for the teenagers who think wearing black and singing about “fucking” is sophisticated (and who wouldn’t be in the theater anyway), but for the show’s undetermined audience, who probably have already heard that they should just say no.