Phoniness finds its soundtrack in “Once Around the Sun,” a laughably shallow new “musical about music” that peddles three-chord cliche as rock ‘n’ roll drama. As they track a young musician’s oh-so-tortured rise to stardom, the writers even have the audacity to liken their milquetoast hero to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain — proving the folly of braying about vision you don’t actually have.
The great hypocrisy of librettist Kellie Overbey and composer-lyricists Steven Morris, Robert Morris and Joe Shane is their disdain for prefabricated pop. The show tries to prove the integrity of Kevin Stevens, the pretty-boy front man played by Asa Somers, by letting him and his friends make jokes about the “shallow, square and empty” junk on “American Idol.” To contrast with our hero, we meet Waldo (Kevin Mambo), an “Idol” winner whose vapid singles have let him replace Kevin’s band at a nightclub gig.
It’s unclear why a TV superstar would play the same rathole as struggling rockers, but simple-minded melodrama has no room for logic. The important thing is showing us that Kevin, by way of his music, digs deeper than some fizzy TV himbo. Yet here’s a sample lyric from one of his masterpieces: “When I dream of you/Yeah, you’re the only one I see/Looking in those loving eyes/I know that you’re the one for me.”
That’s as profound as it gets, and the music is just as vapid. So much for the tuner’s premise that “meaningful” music will save our hearts from corporate emptiness. The composers can’t even master the top 40’s mindless formula, let alone transcend it.
Overbey’s book proves just as awkward, especially when she attempts high drama. Nadirs get hit with any appearance by Nona Blue (Maya Days), an ex-diva record exec who seduces Kevin with promises of success. The catch, of course, is that she’ll only make him a star if he drops his bandmates, becomes her lover, blah, blah, blah.
Nona’s entire arc — from early temptress to redeemed songbird — is instantly obvious, but the show lights some flares to alert the brain dead. When Nona and Kevin first shake hands, a spotlight surrounds them, and everyone else freezes in place. The devilish diva sings, “Kevin, listen to your heart, you’ve wanted this forever.” Kevin stares over the audience, conflicted. Get it? Amazingly, this high-camp moment is not played for laughs, but auds may chuckle anyway.
As they trudge from one number to the next, the actors apparently are dreaming of better work. They’re all excellent singers, but their line readings are universally wooden and bland.
The perfs are so colorless, in fact, that when Caryn Lyn Manuel appears as a new character in the final scene, it takes ages to realize she’s not playing Kevin’s girlfriend from act one.
Director Jace Alexander only adds to the confusion with clunky scene changes that literally stop the show. Thesps must try to deliver speeches while moving tables or changing clothes. Then, once the scenes begin, Alexander has them mime activities that only need simple props. Maybe if they could really pour their drinks instead of just pretending to, the players wouldn’t seem so burdened by their stage business.
But the pantomimed cocktails do have their purpose. Like a dire warning, they remind us that no amount of posturing can give substance to something that’s fake.