Those charmed by the eclectic music and impish humor of concert-musical “Striking 12: The GrooveLily Holiday Show,” which moved from Theatre-Works to Off Broadway success, may find expectations deflated by “Long Story Short.” Devised by two-thirds of the GrooveLily band (none of whom are performing this time), the chamber musical charts a couple’s sometimes rocky road from first date to deathbed. That conceit should allow for plenty of invention, yet “Story” remains frustratingly generic in incident, character and M.O.R. Broadway-pop balladry.
Based on the play “An Infinite Ache” by stage/TV scribe David Schulner, pocket tuner has been revised since its recent debut at Pittsburgh co-producer City Theater. But this TheatreWorks staging still lacks personality. While the aim might be celebrating universal beats in “ordinary” lives, present reality is that these people (and their songs) seldom transcend innocuousness.
Puppyish, garrulous would-be writer Charles (Ben Evans) has just moved from New York to L.A., where he’s set up by a friend with blase Hope (Pearl Sun). She’s unimpressed when he blurts he’s already “played out our lives (together) in my mind.” Nonetheless, both admit “It Happens in a Moment” — falling in love, that is — and subsequently graduate from sleepovers to wedlock.
A first child’s accidental death traumatizes; a surviving second provides parental headaches. There are money woes, career changes, mutual compromises and affairs. Just before intermission they separate, only to reunite for mutually mellowed middle-to-old age.
Like Tracy Brigden’s production, adapter-composer-lyricists Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda haven’t found a way to make the protagonists interesting as opposed to blandly sympathetic. They’re like pleasant-enough new neighbors you’d politely invite to dinner, but wouldn’t feel compelled to ask over again.
Hope is a little uptight. Charles allows, “Deep down, I’m very average.” She’s of Chinese-Filipino heritage. He’s Jewish. She finds her niche as a psychology prof, while he finally abandons unloved corporate jobs to write a sci-fi opus. Yet so little use is made of these particulars that the couple could be anybody.
Rather than exploiting character differences and changing times a la “Same Time, Next Year” (a show one is amazed hasn’t been musicalized), “Story” flattens both out, as do songs blurring together in routine uptempo-ballad melody and lyrical cliche.
Even change-of-pace exceptions — “One Hundredth” shorthands a gradual descent into marital routine and dissatisfaction, while “Empowered” charts 50-year-old Hope’s disillusioning dating-scene re-entry — just moderately amuse.
Staged in the smaller of TheatreWorks’ two houses, on a dully unchanging bedroom set by Neil Patel that further foreshortens playspace, the show still feels overstretched. Its wan intimacy may be best suited to fringe-scaled venues. Perhaps Milburn and Vigoda need to throw out their source material (save concept and structure) to create fresh characters that are more surprising and moving. This is no insult to current performers, who sing and act with pro polish; their roles offer scant room for individualized depth.
William Liberatore ably conducts a four-piece pit band. Milburn’s orchestrations, however, are much more sound-alike than the GrooveLily trio managed in “Striking 12.”