Given the tear-jerking combination of love and death in Erich Segal’s famous “Love Story,” the easy route for this tuner revamp would have been to ramp up passion with high emoting and a sob-inducing orchestral sweep. But Howard Goodall and Stephen Clark’s new tuner turns out to be a model of restraint. Both the material and Rachel Kavanaugh’s skilled production are as tasteful as the elegantly dressed band of piano, guitar, double-bass and string quartet who are onstage throughout. Sadly, however, it proves possible to drown in good taste.
The best news is that the commercial urge merely to put the movie onstage has been resisted. Locations are shifted and scenes deftly sharpened for this stage translation of the tale of preppy lawyer Oliver Barrett IV and working-class muso Jenny Cavalleri. Better yet, Francis Lai’s theme, shamelessly overused in the movie, makes just one appearance, transformed into a sub-Bach prelude at the recital that Jenny gives.
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Retaining the film’s flashback structure, the show opens at Jenny’s funeral on Peter McKintosh’s single white-room set with the plaintive and beautifully sung “What can you say about a girl?” a number handed around the black-dressed cast in solos and a trio, who fill the audience in on Jenny’s character.
The welcome surprise here is that Jenny (sweetly voiced Emma Williams) joins in, neatly signaling the production’s ability to remain true to the original without doggedly sticking to its letter. This also suggests that the addition of music will strengthen the material.
Yet, although Goodall’s chamber-sized score is neatly threaded in and out of Stephen Clark’s book scenes, it feels more illustrative than dynamic. Structurally, Goodall’s scrupulously well-harmonized phrases wind up feeling on a par with the repetitive, downward cycles of phrasing of Michel Legrand’s music. The tone feels gently reflective and woebegone almost throughout, and the colors it adds are distinctly pastel where something more primary might add much-needed punch.
The exception is a Rossini-like comic patter song about the pasta that new wife Jenny ceaselessly cooks. Rhyming tagliatelli, vermicelli and every other shape imaginable, the number smartly telescopes time showing her years at home as Oliver goes through law school. And there’s further sensory pleasure, too, as Kavanaugh has Williams gleefully cooking on a real stove.
Elsewhere, too many of the lyrics feel distinctly contrived. When Jenny sings of her hoped-for children, “I will play my kids nocturnes/ If they feel they’re alone/ I will soothe them with Schumann/ And some Nina Simone,” it’s the rhyme rather than the meaning that is uppermost. In the same song, Jenny completes a line with the word “not” in order to end with “I know they’ll love Joplin/ Both Janis and Scott.”
Easeful, suitably handsome Michael Xavier is perhaps not ideal casting as a hockey-jock, but he’s perfectly convincing as a suited young lawyer. Yet even he cannot flesh out priggish, one-dimensional Oliver, who exists solely to fall in love, hate his father and then be sad. Jenny’s character fares a little better, because singing fills out her feistiness and she gets to be noble in death.
The father/son dilemma remains as conveniently underwritten as before, presumably because if you open it up to examination, the final payoff collapses. More problematically still, the supremely tasteful script and production present Oliver and Jenny’s relationship as so extraordinarily tidy and neat as to feel airbrushed. They bicker and flirt, then sing of their love and clasp each other appropriately, but even in (perfectly pressed) underwear, they generate zero sexual tension.
The crucial elements missing are telling detail and the messiness of relationships, not least in death. Yet the tear-stained faces at the end of the press matinee suggest that the combination of abiding sentimentality, economic scale and, of course, a world-famous title should ensure a future for the show in regional and amateur companies. But only those already immensely well-disposed toward the material are likely to fall for its manicured charms.