The new John Patrick Shanley-Henry Krieger musical comedy “Romantic Poetry” is neither romantic nor poetic; there’s lots of music — 25 songs, no less — but the comedy is mostly in the mind of author-director Shanley. Manhattan Theater Club has had a rough opening to its 38th semester, following the critically maligned “To Be or Not to Be” with this baffling opus. Given the nonprofit’s long history with the Tony, Oscar and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, most notably with “Doubt,” it’s understandable why they gave Shanley the slot. But it’s unclear what MTC sages saw in last year’s developmental staging at Vassar that persuaded them this porridge was ready for a full production.
Shanley offers six characters in search of a musical. The story, as best one can tell, is about a girl and her three husbands, one of whom is a cell-phone salesman-turned-poet; the other two seem to be a dysfunctional, old-time vaudeville team. They are joined by a caterer-turned-deli owner and his romantic partner, a hotel manager-turned-painter.
The twin themes in the play seem to be that it’s better to be an unsuccessful artist than just about anything else, and that love in our modern-day world is impossible. The humor is likely to appeal solely to patrons who think the mere mention of Long Island’s Five Towns equals hilarity — there are literally thunderclaps when anyone says “Five Towns” — with true hysteria tapped by the word “Woodmere.” As for philosophy, we are bombarded with sentiments like “Disappointment is the devil’s tobacco. Don’t smoke it.”
Krieger, the celebrated composer of “Dreamgirls” and “Side Show,” provides music by the mile. There are a few hints of interesting melody here and there, but lyricist Shanley doesn’t know what to do with them.
The bride (Emily Swallow) complains, upon her first entrance, that she is “just like a troubadour, behind a prison door, singing to his amour.” And she later has a drunken aria that goes “There’s a nightclub in my shoe, and I go there when I’m blue.” One of her ex-husbands (Mark-Linn Baker) sings, “I am a serf, I’ve never seen-a, girl of high birth, you’re a czarina.” For the record, Shanley also sees fit to offer the quadruple rhyme “between us,” “Venus,” “heinous” and — well, you can guess.
The actors shoulder their burdens with due fortitude. Baker at least knows how to maneuver through this sort of thing with a semblance of style. Jerry Dixon and Patina Renea Miller come off best of the others; Dixon even gets to sing what sounds like a real song, “An Ordinary Man.”
“Oh, somebody fix this!” cries one of the characters late in the first act. Producers should have heeded that suggestion. Shanley is known for keeping a tight rein over his material, but a little helpful guidance — or a lot — might have been in order for his first time tackling book, lyrics and direction of a musical. The talented writer presumably has something on his mind here, but the message is mighty cloudy. Romantic poetry it ain’t.