I can see it now: Some bright spark will grab the back catalog of the Doors and open a musical version of “The Towering Inferno” with “Come On, Baby, Light My Fire.” To be fair, “Desperately Seeking Susan” — the stage blending of Blondie’s hits with the 1980s cult movie — never stoops that low. But it’s soon depressingly clear that this combination of on-the-beat rock and off-beat comedy is less a collusion than a collision.
The production’s basic problem is its lack of imagination. The book, by Off Broadway writer/performer Peter Michael Marino, doesn’t so much cleave as cling to the movie’s mistaken identity/life-swap plot, which was none too watertight to begin with.
Frustrated housewife Roberta (Kelly Price in the Rosanna Arquette role) escapes suburbia by following sassy drifter Susan (Emma Williams stepping into Madonna’s shoes) who has accidentally become involved in the fall-out of a heist plot.
A blow to her head from the bad guy leaves Roberta with amnesia, and, because she’s dressed as Susan and everyone thinks she’s Susan, she does, too. Inappropriate romantic complications ensue for both women until a happy ending is reached for almost everyone.
The movie switches with ease between the two women’s trajectories. All it has to do is cut. Onstage, that’s not only cumbersome, it’s time-consuming with so many locations and set-ups to, well, set up.
Tim Hatley’s functional, twin-level stage space edged by two barely used iron stairways helps matters along, but with so much plot to get through, almost no scene is given time to breathe let alone allow for audience engagement. The consequent lack of emotional connection is the show’s single most grievous and damaging omission.
The other structural problem is unexpected. It’s not that the well-loved Blondie songs don’t fit the action — it’s that they do. The opening sequence finds Roberta feeling frustrated and Susan irritated and disaffected. They’re both dreaming: Cue song of the same name, which augurs well for the evening as a whole.
But, after that, in almost every instance, instead of advancing plot or building tension, the numbers merely (over)illustrate what we already know. The songs don’t dramatize situations — they prolong them. In “Atomic,” for instance, during which Roberta and Dez (under-used Alec Newman) fall for each other, the lyrics simply restate an emotion endlessly, leaving no room for dramatic development.
The singing is the show’s strongest point. The cast have uniformly solid voices, especially Mark McGee as Susan’s band-singer boyfriend, who delivers serious rock vocals. Williams’ sneering Susan, made up to look more like Debbie Harry than Madonna, compensates in vocal power for what she lacks in real sexual threat.
When it comes to adding Blondie to pump up the sex, Paul Schrader got there first. He hired Harry to sex up his movie “American Gigolo,” singing “Call Me.” But that was soundtrack embellishment; here the music is very much present. But is the music or the movie in the driver’s seat? Fatally, director Angus Jackson never makes it clear. The show wants it both ways but winds up delivering on neither.
The unchanging atmosphere and absence of tension are also attributable to Andy Blankenbuehler’s anodyne choreography. For no convincing dramatic reason, dancers fill otherwise intimate scenes. What comes off is neither heat nor excitement, it’s the effort involved in the numbers’ execution. No matter how different the songs are, the largely characterless movement means they all end up feeling the same.
As if realizing the show needs help, Hugh Vanstone’s busy lighting plot flings color and cues at everything in an attempt to generate energy.
In pursuit of the same goal, the sound designers whack up the volume. That causes the singers to struggle for audibility; the top of almost everyone’s registers sound harsh, which is particularly unflattering to Price’s otherwise sweetly naive Roberta. Her performance is equaled only by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s zinger as the eye-flashing, reproving maid Maria, who goes gloriously wild at Susan’s impromptu party.
The clue here, sadly, is in the title. The desperation on display is that of a production team trying to hide the awareness it has painted itself into a corner. Instead of keeping the basic plot and then ditching and reimagining everything else in theatrical terms — see “Billy Elliot” or “The Lion King” — the fidelity of this screen-to-stage transfer is its undoing.