The bottom of the billing page for “Sessions” — a new musical debuting at the comfortable and well-appointed Peter Jay Sharp Theater in the Playwrights Horizons complex — bears the legend “Play is not a production of Playwrights Horizons.” That’s for sure. The tale of a psychiatrist and the motley crew who possess his couch, the show is booked for a 12-week run, which in the parlance of the piece comes to an overly optimistic 96 sessions.
Albert Tapper has written the book, music and lyrics for what’s sort of a supine “A Chorus Line,” if you will, with everybody getting their turn in the chair. There’s even a disembodied voice — listed in the program as “The Voice” — which helps move things along from the back of the theater.
Dr. Peterson (Matthew Shepard) is the big daddy of the group, attempting to solve the varied crises of the stock characters while simultaneously trying to heal himself. (He is steps away from an affair with one of his patients, a sexy divorcee who seems to inhabit a different world than the other characters.)
Tapper also gives us a nebbish who lives with his mother; a guitar strummer who calls himself Dylan; an older couple who bicker incessantly and cheat at Scrabble; a real estate agent whose father didn’t love him; a gal named Sunshine whose mother didn’t love her; and, for social relevance, a cancer victim being battered by her police officer husband. (For the sake of suspense, we won’t say what happens to her midway through the second act.)
The underlying message — spelled out in the opening number “I’m Only Human” — seems to be that psychiatrists are “only human with feet of clay.” This is reprised for the finale, in counterpoint with everyone else singing “dance the night away.”
“Sessions” presents yet another group of hard-working actors struggling against the material. Amy Bodnar, as the sexy temptress, comes off best, with suggestions of talent peeking through the haze. Scott Richard Foster, although trapped in the thankless role of the group nerd, does nicely with Tapper’s best song, “Wendy.”
Five-piece band, led by Fran Minarik and orchestrated by Steven Gross, makes it all sound reasonably professional. Set by Peter Barbieri Jr. is extremely handsome, with an expansive waiting room opening to reveal an oversized office with a to-die-for view of the Upper East Side. That these premises are more likely for a venture capitalist (Tapper’s day job) than a shrink is beside the point; they sure are nice, especially when the upstage cityscape lights up.
And let us not overlook the choreography. Remember the one where they put the singer in an office chair and spin it round while everyone else parades in the opposite direction? Director-choreographer Steven Petrillo gives us that scintillating move at least three times in the first act. The big production number is called “You Should Dance,” but they really ought not.