“Some Lovers,” the new Burt Bacharach-Steven Sater vestpocket tuner, takes its inspiration from the dual irony of O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi”: Husband sells watch to buy wife combs, while wife sells tresses to buy spouse watchfob. There’s irony at the Old Globe, too, in that octogenarian composer Bacharach brings youthful freshness to the project, while the young guy’s work (Sater wrote “Spring Awakening”) is lifeless and dull. The show has some sparkle, but it’s a meandering romance.
Blocked, heavy-drinking tunesmith Ben (Jason Danieley) uses Christmas Eve as an opportunity to attempt to reconnect with ex-g.f. and muse Molly (Michelle Duffy). Maybe they’ve both caught the Gotham revival of “Follies,” because they conjure their younger selves (Andrew Mueller and Jenni Barber) to go down a musical memory lane and sort out what went awry.
The cast is sensational. Danieley and Duffy are confident pros for whom, in an earlier theatrical era, original musicals would’ve been made every season. The youngsters match them step for step in charisma and brio.
Bacharach — in his first stage tuner since “Promises, Promises” in (can it be?) 1968 — provides sweet, soaring melodies for past and present incarnations of this mismatched pair, while eschewing his once-signature tricky time signatures (understandably, since the characters are so square).
But the writing! “Some Lovers” plays like an extended bout of couples therapy, in which the participants sing around their problems while never exactly communicating anything germane or interesting.
As near as one can make out, NYU business major Molly falls in love with Ben because of his ability to write fine songs she inspires. But she gets pissed off when his creative mania causes him to miss appointments and get distracted on a vacation. Does she esteem his gift — his “ghost,” she grimly calls it — or doesn’t she?
He starts cranking out hits once he hooks up with an unnamed singer. It’s strictly professional, but Molly promptly demands he give “that girl” up, at which point his career disintegrates. Then she keeps nattering he should get a “real job,” marry her and give her a baby. In short, a fuller portrait of a jealous, controlling, castrating harpy is hard to imagine.
Sater leans on strained parallels with the O. Henry story instead of grounding the characters in specificity. When Molly delivers a really pointed laugh line about the Nativity Magi, you can literally see the audience wake up out of its torpor.
Meanwhile, his lyrics wallow in past tense expressions of generic pop sentiment, the near-rhyming of “Spring Awakening” utterly out of place among precise thinkers like Ben and Molly. (At one point Sater actually rhymes “summer/other/lover” right in a row. Paging Hal David.)
Helmer Will Frears and musical stager Denis Jones can do little with this material except have the cast saunter around the arena stage. In a final irony, Takeshi Kata’s messy set is as cluttered with naturalistic detail as Sater’s script is bereft of it.