The West End fails to get the late-summer jolt it needs with “Peggy Sue Got Married,” a new musical requiring a return visit to the altar if such a bland and anodyne show is to have anything resembling a honeymoon with the public. Book writers Arlene Sarner and Jerry Leichtling co-wrote the 1986 film that brought Kathleen Turner a (deserved) Oscar nomination and have been working on a stage musical adaptation since 1994. It’s somewhat astonishing, then, that they haven’t thought it through better, since the stage “Peggy Sue” feels like a blueprint for a show that has yet to be fully written — or, for that matter, richly reimagined either in direction or design.
Nostalgists may warm to the musical’s attempts to marry “Grease” to the sort of comforting message (Peggy Sue has to learn to “forgive and move on”) that wouldn’t embarrass many a Hallmark card, and Ruthie Henshall inhabits the title role so likably, and in such firm voice, that the audience tends to smile when she does. But it says something about what’s gone missing that the first-act closer is a Jim Steinman-esque rock blast called “Two Kinds of Fire” when “Peggy Sue,” even by that point, hasn’t shown any sparks.
The musical follows the outlines of a film that, if memory serves, was considerably quirkier than the live version. (Interestingly, the original movie seems to have been withdrawn from local video stores, thereby making direct comparison difficult — which may be the intention.) One minute, Henshall’s Peggy Sue is lamenting her transition at age 42 from a “hip chick” to a “chick with hips”; an unexplained fainting spell later, she’s back at Bayside High School circa 1960 with the chance to reorder a life that has gone off the rails.
That means deciding anew between Charlie (Andrew Kennedy), the heavy-crooning adulterer whom Peggy Sue ended up marrying, and Michael (Tim Howar, ably energizing a one-joke role), the Paris-bound rebel-beatnik. (“Mortality fills my tank,” he says by way of nihilistic self-explanation. “Death owns my sidecar.”) Some of the show’s droller moments accompany the comedy that goes with Peggy Sue’s Cassandra status: drunk on Jack Daniels, she revels in getting grounded by dad — ah, the joys of teenage-hood! — and she alone knows that nerdy science whiz Richard (Gavin Lee) will end up finding fame, fortune and a wife.
The scenario is sufficiently touching, at least in theory, that it need not seem quite so borrowed. A second-act interlude in the Bongo Club allows choreographer Sergio Trujillo to trot out the inevitable Fosse-esque gyrations (Trujillo, indeed, is an alum of “Fosse”), while Kelly Robinson’s direction pitches too many scenes at the level of a “Laugh In” skit — laugh line followed by blackout. (Among the more memorable remarks: “You know what a penis is,” advises Peggy Sue’s concerned mother. “Stay away from it!”)
Bob Gaudio’s score dips in and out of period, and it’s not helped by lyrics from Leichtling (a good “Descartes” joke notwithstanding) that don’t so much send up time-honored cliches — “a runway to a new life,” and so on — as revel in them. As for Henshall, it’s hardly this tireless performer’s fault that the ending cops out of Peggy Sue’s conundrum by reaffirming her life with the cipher that is Charlie when the far more honest response might find our heroine willing to tough it out alone. At such moments, “Peggy Sue Got Married” doesn’t only travel back to 1960; it could just as well have been written at a time before women — not to mention the musical theater — woke up.