Romance, Romance, music by Keith Herrmann, book and lyrics by Barry Harman. Directed by Igor Goldin.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Ari Frenkel and Megan Rozak; photo supplied
"And if I hurt, please remind me...."
Two one-act musical plays comprise the show "Romance, Romance." Each one is based on a 19th century European source: ‘The Little Comedy’ by Arthur Schnitzler and ‘Summer Share’ based on ‘Pain de Menage’ by Jules Renard. Both tales are bittersweet and deal with romantic notions that lead to unanticipated results. In the musical by Barry Harman and Keith Herrmann all the roles are played by just four people. There is a leading couple and a support couple. However, on the stage at the Theatre Barn in New Lebanon, New York, there is a leading lady and three support players, sadly.
In the first act, set in Vienna and environs a demimonde and a dapper society toff who do not know one another, bored with romances that lead to bad endings, decide to masquerade for a night as lower class, un-moneyed folk and see what they can find for a romance. They happen to find one another and buy into each other’s made-up stories about their lives. Inevitably they fall in love and have an affair which causes each of them to realize they must end everything by confessing their true identities. Truth, as always, makes a difference and it is harder to handle than the romantic fantasies they have created for one another.
The second half of the show is set in the Hamptons, on the south shore of Long Island in the present day. Two married couples, best friends, spend a typical weekend together in the house they co-rent on the beach. Two of them, male and female, old friends - best friends, fall in love with one another late one night and try to resist the urges that shove them into a sexual encounter that goes bad before it can go good. Everything changes for the quartet.
Those are the stories. These are the people.
Megan Rozak plays Josefine Weninger, the demimonde, in the first play. She is vivacious and buxom and altogether too magnificent for words. She outdoes the Gabor sisters, frankly, and makes the most of the assets God gave her, bosom and voice. She sings, dances the polka, acts her mini-monologues and preens to the very best of her vast abilities. She is altogether charming and fun to watch and listen to in all of her numbers. The sweet exuberance of "Yes, It’s Love" and her wonderful duetting on "I’ll Always Remember the Song" allow her to exude more charm than there is on a charm bracelet. "Goodbye Emil" is also a wonderful number for her.
As Monica in the second show, she is simple, straightforward, a bit dowdy for a pretty woman but still a charmer. Her show-stopper, "Now" coming almost at the end of the play is a strong piece for her, eliciting a silent response from the audience rather than an instant applause which was just perfectly in keeping with the theme of the piece. Rozak knows how to play emotions in her music and her strong voice, underscored delicately by the inadequate accompaniment (not badly played, just under-instrumented) does well on all of her songs. She can also act which helps a great deal in the second play. She is definitely the solo star in this show.
Her husband in act two is played with humor, sadness, a touch of class that was also unexpected by Daniel Moser. He emerges an early winner in the romantic sweepstakes of this piece in the song "Think of the Odds" which brackets small scenes during which the principals discuss their friendship and its romance-free sanctity. In the more comic duet, "My Love For You," in which he plays opposite Chelsea Witiak’s Barb, he is a rare delight. As "Him" in the first half he plays with grace and aplomb.
Witiak, the second woman, has a wonderful singing voice and she can also deliver a line, a gesture or a facial expression with punch and panache. Her blandly faithful Barb is almost funny, yet smacks of a reality that is so rare it becomes compelling. Her voice in the clarion call "Small Craft Warnings" - one of my favorite songs from this show - was delicate and emotionally unwavering, yet her expressive face and her way with words made it the most completely rewarding moment in the entire show.
The leading man in both halves of the show is Ari Frenkel. His work was the most uneven of the night with his portrayal of Sam in Act Two a nicely played role as opposed to his completely unbelievable Alfred Von Wilmers in the first playlet. I don’t know how so many wrong choices could have been made for this character. Voice, gestures, posture, costume, hat - oh that hat; name it and it was unavoidably wrong. Frenkel came across as the gayest man in Vienna with the worst taste in clothing. He maintained an accent that was more Israeli than Austrian and smacked of bad Yiddish Theatre acting style than of anything else. It was certainly the most unromantic venture of the evening. Even his face, twisted into knots while singing, was unattractive and hard to bear.
Then, in "Summer Share" he became Sam, a regular guy, nice, easy to listen to, easy to like. His take on this married man who doesn’t want to fool around, but does it anyway, was gentle and straightforward and right on. In both acts it was clear that he could sing and has a decent voice. That wasn’t the problem. The deep shameful problem was that he couldn’t make the first half of the evening into something we could understand and believe.
Director Igor Goldin may be the responsible party when it came to such uneven work by Frenkel, but that is a hard call to make. He certainly didn’t take drastic steps to correct or alter this bizarre performance, so it must be inferred that these were his choices, although I find it hard to swallow that easy excuse for such mismanagement of a role. Goldin directed an excellent "The Full Monty" at this theater and his other work has been fine as well. Somehow in this piece a barn door was left open and a jackass walked in and brayed at all the wrong moments. In every other way Goldin’s work was wonderful, so once again we are left with conjecture and no real answers. We shall never know why this one character is so badly presented in an otherwise lovely piece of stage-work.
Allen Phelps lighting is so much a part of the musical theater tradition that I wanted to cheer some of the light cues. Abe Phelps set is fun and whimsical and works well for the show. Kate R. Mincer has a real knack for costumes, with the exception of Mr. Frenkel’s Act One ensemble and hat. Jessica Roach added some sweet choreography, particularly in the first half.
You won’t kick yourself for missing this show, but if you see it you will find some wonderful memories on stage at the Theatre Barn. Though completely unfamiliar to most people, this 1987 show was nominated for five Tony Awards and it starred a young Scott Bakula and a young Alison Fraser. Those are pretty good credentials for a little show that showed it could. Here in New Lebanon, Megan Rozak is making that kind of statement now. She can! And she is worth the price of admission.
Romance, Romance is playing at the Theatre Barn Thursdays through Sundays at 654 Route 20 in New Lebanon, NY. For information and tickets call 518-794-9898.