Somewhere near the end of “Tell Me on a Sunday,” the 75-minute self-help soapbox masquerading as a musical that was once the “Song” part of the two-act Andrew Lloyd Webber/Don Black show “Song and Dance,” an overriding question begins to nag: Have the creators of this sung-through lamentation about a lovesick Essex girl on her own in Manhattan ever been to New York? What’s more, and rather more fundamentally: Have they ever met a woman?
They must have, on both counts, though you’d be hard-pressed to deduce as much from this astonishingly vacuous “revisal” of a 1982 West End entry (and, before that, stand-alone song cycle for the performer Marti Webb) whose attitudes would seem antique even if they hadn’t and have been superseded by such infinitely wittier analyses of female singledom as “Sex and the City,” among many others. Over and over, Denise Van Outen’s unnamed heroine — to grant this woman a name, I suppose, would be to divest her of Everywoman status — lets rip as one schmo after another leaves her heartsick in New York (and L.A., too, the worthless and relationship-wary male by no means an exclusively East Coast specimen).
She would probably have been best off with local videostore employee Joe. His pursuit of her long-overdue tape of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” at least marks him as consistent, which is more than can be said for the L.A. agent, the young photographer, or the married man with the 9-year-old daughter, each of whom makes the option of a life playing Scrabble sound pretty terrif by comparison.
Most of the time, you feel like urging this apparent masochist to try, say, a job. Our English expat doesn’t seem to work, despite landing what Rob Howell’s busy turntable set would suggest is a pretty smart Manhattan abode. No employment? Fine: Why doesn’t she take solace in the myriad opportunities afforded by New York itself? No again.
Despite making a considerable song and dance about issues of cultural displacement, the show’s acquaintanceship with the Big Apple is risibly superficial, limited to a few token scene-setting projections (Radio City, Letterman) and the facility of rhyming the Essex-speak for sandwich, i.e. “sarnie,” with, you guessed it, Barney’s. Then again, perhaps Friday nights at Whisper’s, our lady of Essex’s one-time haunt in Ilford, east of London, don’t prepare you for the pleasures of the Frick.
“Tell Me on a Sunday” has in fact played New York, in the 1985 Broadway run of “Song and Dance” that earned Bernadette Peters the first of her two Tonys as the hapless Emma. (She at least had a name!) On that occasion, there was a certain charm to be had from so quintessentially New York a presence as Peters playing a Londoner new to Manhattan, and this updated and expanded version, complete with five new songs — one of them a contemporary equivalent (complete with much furious hurling of props) to “Kiss Me, Kate’s” “I Hate Men” — delivers a casting coup of sorts. Van Outen, a likable and popular TV personality in Britain, is an actual Essex lass who has all but been mythologized in the British press for “conquering” Broadway a season or two ago as Roxie Hart in “Chicago,” even if most New York theater people I have canvassed on the subject barely seem to have registered her name.
Van Outen is an appealing and attractive blonde with real stage presence, and, bottled water at the ready, she clearly gives herself over to the formidable task at hand. But it goes almost without saying that she’s nowhere near the vocal technician, nor the actress, Peters is. The English star’s vocal limitations may explain why “Unexpected Song,” the standard-bearer of Lloyd Webber’s alternately plaintive and anthemic score, goes heavy on the instrumental passages, though I’m not sure it entirely justifies the funereal pace at which the title song gets taken, transforming a pleasingly wistful number into a self-pitying dirge.
More irksome is “Tell Me’s” amplified self-importance, a function no doubt of the piece now having to stand on its own as opposed to anticipating a second-act ballet that was choreographed by Anthony Van Laast in London and Peter Martins on Broadway. The inclusion among the writing credits of the irreverent British comedian Jackie Clune turns out to be a red herring, unless it was Clune who was responsible for bringing the material into the age of e-mail, ashtanga yoga and speed dating (with an acupressurist from Chelsea? Uh, I don’t think so), and the notion, expressed early on, that “New York is safer than London.” (That certainly wouldn’t have been the case 22 years ago.)
Elsewhere, Black’s lyrics build mainly to a Hallmark Card level of hopefulness, from our heroine announcing defiantly “I don’t break easy” to “love will arrive somewhere, someplace, sometime,” as the music swells, on cue. As for any twist or ironic turn in the tale, forget it.
The cumulative effect of all this is more than a little wearying, even at a running time that, at top price, works out at 50 pence per anguished minute. As directed (rather surprisingly) by Matthew Warchus, the physical production sentimentally italicizes every emotional surge. There are projections of flowers in bloom when it looks as if love might blossom, film footage of our heroine as a ponytailed tyke scampering about with a dog during her presumably more carefree youth.
“I know who I am,” Van Outen exults late on, which seems rather rich, since we are left with barely a clue. “Tell Me on a Sunday” trades exclusively on the notion of woman as victim, in which case so generic a vanity production constitutes the final assault.