Even before Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals helped popularize the game, playing Spot-That-Classical-Melody was always good sport. But in “Doris to Darlene, a Cautionary Valentine,” Jordan Harrison takes the joke too much to heart by trying to make a theatrical event out of the fact that pop composers routinely cannibalize the classical music canon for their themes. Laboring to be clever, the whimsical tale about a melody so haunting it transcends time to touch a lovesick boy is too mannered in dramatic style and directorial sensibility to stir much interest in its slim romantic theme.
The curious thing about this play about music is how little music it has. While multiple time lines allow Richard Wagner (David Chandler) to share the split stage with later generations of his admirers — including a 1950s pop star and a present-day musicologist — the characters seem less interested in making music than in talking about it.
According to the fanciful plot, enterprising record producer Vic Watts (Michael Crane) manufactures a bubblegum hit out of Wagner’s “Liebestod.” He also makes a superstar out of Doris (De’Adre Aziza), the teenager he signs up as a singer and renames Darlene.
Playing it slick and sleazy, Crane makes an amusing first impression as the spirit of Phil Spector. (“Gimme a hundred violins,” he orders his studio technicians. “Electric harpsichords. Little combo of Romanian gypsies for the bridge — get those gypsies on a plane.”) But the character goes nowhere and takes his time getting there.
Aziza initially shows some spunk as the sassy teen songbird discovered, groomed and married by the calculating producer, who takes her off the market before she can develop her talent. (In a vindictive moment, Vic reveals it was only “a mediocre talent,” anyway.) But being walled up in a Malibu mansion does nothing for Darlene’s character, and she languishes like some fairy tale princess locked away in her tower.
More to the point, the R&B ’50s sound popularized by Darlene and other girl singers of that soulful era is also put to sleep before we get to hear it. Aside from some musical scraps contributed by Kirsten Childs (“The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin”), even Darlene’s signature song — described with a smirk as “Wagner with tom-toms” — exists mainly in the discussion of it.
Meanwhile, spinning in and out of sight on Takeshi Kata’s turntable set, Chandler’s attractively tormented Wagner swishes around in his brocade dressing gown (a la costumer Christal Weatherly), struggling for the inspiration to write “Liebestod.” But the great man finds it hard to concentrate under the puppy-dog adoration of his royal patron Ludwig II (Laura Heisler), the mad boy-king of Bavaria who longs to be, if not the lover in Wagner’s bed, then one of the tragic lovers in his romantic operas.
Reflecting their forbidden (and unconsummated) passion is a third subplot, set in a modern-day high-school classroom, about a sensitive student infatuated with his discreetly gay music appreciation teacher. This is the most realistic of the tales, and while it also relies on the mannered narrative device of direct-address, helmer Les Waters drops the directorial archness a notch or two to allow for some honest moments between the lovesick Young Man (Tobias Segal) and Mr. Campani (Tom Nelis).
But even with their sly readings of the precious dialogue, there are limits to the appeal of impressionable young lads who fancy themselves characters in Wagnerian operas.