Life turns on a dime. … In this world, you never quite get what you pay for. … In this time called life we are just players in the game. … Life is only a ride on the wheel; we fall off and get back on. … Where is the human in humanity? That hit parade of trite platitudes, plus a heap more, are stitched with jaw-dropping conviction into the megalomaniacal folly that is “In My Life.” An overblown soap opera framed by bizarre afterlife interludes and dripping with mawkish sentiment, this astonishing misfire will be a must-see for all the Broadway tuner-train wreck completists who still speak wistfully of “Carrie.”
Long before a giant lemon (not kidding!) descends to dominate the stage in the final song, the suspicion arises that this might be an elaborate joke, like Bialystock and Bloom’s insurance scam to hatch a surefire flop in “The Producers.” But no such trickery seems intended. The brain child of composer-lyricist-book writer-director Joseph Brooks — who gave the world 1977 schmaltz fest “You Light up My Life” and a string of advertising jingles — this baffling mix of romance, Tourette’s syndrome, brain tumors and heavenly intervention remains unswervingly earnest, even as it lurches unintentionally into parody.
“Listen to the best music you’ve ever heard in your life,” urges a CD sampler being given away by the thousands all over New York’s theater district this past month to promote “In My Life.” Maybe if you have Tourette’s, OCD, ADD and a tumor jabbing away at your optic nerve, as does the struggling songwriter hero of this show, J.T. (Christopher J. Hanke), you might be forgiven for making such an audacious claim.
To more objective listeners, the songs will sound as generic and interchangeable as the chorus performers elevated to leading roles who interpret them here — Hanke’s “American Idol” power surges notwithstanding.
Then again, the tunes are probably evergreens next to J.T.’s college radio hits, the titles of which we are tantalized with — “Creatures of the Morning Rain,” “Purple Girl,” “Blue Apple” — but, alas, never hear.
Just as they’re vowing in the take-a-chance opening song to “climb out from the lost-and-found and try to turn my life around,” cute twentysomethings J.T. and Jenny (Jessica Boevers) meet in a Manhattan diner and instantly identify each other as soul mates. Village Voice staffer Jenny seems only marginally less verbally manic than J.T., so it’s a natural that they bond over Jung, synchronicity and “Buridan’s Ass” — a postulate by 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan (again, not kidding!).
But just as they plan to move in together, J.T.’s blinding headaches alert doctors that he requires emergency surgery. “I can’t have this thing now!” he wails. “I just got a girlfriend and it looks like I’m gonna get a record deal.” Even worse, J.T. fears the surgery might erase his memory and his songwriting capabilities, killing his plans to leave an artistic legacy: “I want to make a difference.” So he declines to go under the knife and keeps his condition a secret until it’s almost too late.
Just in case this all seems a little too “Days of Our Lives,” J.T. and Jen’s travails are overseen by Winston (David Turner), a terribly British, flamingly gay, glamrock-styled accountant-turned-archangel — and I mean arch. He flutters down at intervals from heaven — a massive file room staffed by silver-haired mods in platform go-go boots — to gather material for his “reality opera.” Providing regular injections of embalmed frivolity, including a kick line of skeletons (don’t ask), Winston experiments with staging the piece as a pirate opera and a Mozartian marriage, rooting throughout for a tragic ending.
Also looking on from heaven are J.T.’s mother (Roberta Gumbel) — she sings Italian opera in an elevated Donna Reed kitchen lifted, designwise, from “The Pillowman” — and his poisonously sweet kid sister, Vera (Chiara Navarra). In the treacly anthem “When She Danced,” we learn the pigtailed tyke could have been a prima ballerina. But mom and daughter were killed in a collision with a drunk driver, who’s also in heaven, where Vera forgives him with a hug (regrettably, still not kidding).
When earthbound characters, afterlife denizens and J.T. in limbo all join to stand erect with fists clenched, solemnly singing their plea to God for the hero’s young life in “Not This Day,” the turgid “Les Miz” ripoff involuntarily delivers one of the most hilarious skewerings of overwrought musical emotion since the “South Park” movie.
Perhaps most mystifying is that God, a schlub named Al (Michael J. Farina), for no good reason sings jingles for Volkswagen and Dr. Pepper, among Brooks’ biggest successes. The deity is a jinglemeister? Joe Brooks is God? Freaky.
In J.T.’s “I Am My Mother’s Son,” the show has one pretty song that sounds like it’s part of a narrative and not just random Hallmark gurgling. But Brooks’ lyrics generally range from preteen poetic (“It’s raining flowers from the sky/Don’t let the moment pass you by”) to syntactically ugly (“In my life/I am lucky that I had the chance/To find you/To not have missed the dance”). And while the director has surrounded himself with a gifted design team — Allen Moyer provides the sets, Catherine Zuber the costumes and Christopher Akerlind the lighting — there’s a strong sense that lots of money is being hurled at the stage with no unifying creative vision to guide it.
In the end, maybe the irksome Vera sums it up best when she sings, “Who are all these people and what are all these songs?”