Sunday, January 29, 2017

Hitching glitches: Actors Theatre of Indiana opens a 21st-century marriage comedy, chockful of songs

One of Shakespeare's golden iambic-pentameter lines that long ago turned into an adage goes like this: "The course of true love never did run smooth."

The young couples toast to the future happiness they have their hearts set upon.
That sentiment has also become nearly an iron law of comedy, from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," where the line first appeared in context, to "It Shoulda Been You,"  the 2011 musical comedy that opened Friday night in an Actors Theatre of Indiana production.

Weddings are of course the crux of that hoary sentiment. They generate a host of anxieties even when true love seems to be running as smoothly as it ever does. In "It Shoulda Been You," the main obstacle to be overcome is not the obvious one. The obvious one is the cultural divide between the two families, the Steinbergs and the Howards. This kind of mixed marriage has a sentimental forebear: the immensely popular and influential play "Abie's Irish Rose," a smash hit in the 1920s.

The plot here is hugely different. And though I can't be sure if the Howards are Catholics or Episcopalians, they lean toward WASP stereotypes, reinforced by the performances of Bill Book and Cynthia Collins. Religion itself is relatively unimportant, except as the kind of prop it is (can we be honest?) in so many modern weddings. It might have been interesting to see what "It Shoulda Been You" authors Brian Hargrove and Barbara Anselmi would make of the Judeo-Christian mishmash of a ceremony needed to cement such a bond, but that happens offstage. In Bernard Killian's hotel suite, with multiple doors (to shore up the show's farcical elements), the motivating dramatic crisis is explored before the nuptials, then set upon a new footing and resolved with difficulty afterward.

The stress of the big event hits the Center for the Performing Arts' Studio Stage immediately, focused upon Jenny Steinberg, loyal sister of the bride-to-be, Rebecca. As seen Saturday night, Karaline Feller quickly engaged one's sympathies soliloquizing in song ("I Never Wanted This") about the burden of being the practical, taken-for-granted one in the family.

Jenny turns out to be the focus of the whole show, representing what has become a cliche of modern musicals — the overlooked, underestimated, or even disdained person of superior head and heart who floats uneasily on the edge of the mainstream before eventually docking in a harbor of deserved happiness. I don't know where all this staged-and-sung struggle for triumphant self-esteem comes from — "Hairspray" or "Wicked," perhaps — but it's been relied on overmuch to put a cap on the feel-good outcome comedies depend on.

For Jenny to find happiness requires unexpected developments that can't be revealed here, divulged in the second half of this  long one-act (an intermission after another Jenny solo, "Beautiful," might have been nice). Along the way, she has to fend off her sister's rejected suitor Marty (Nic Eastlund) and minimize the negative effects of her mother, Judy (Judy Fitzgerald), a lifelong buttinsky with the passive-aggressive tendencies of the Jewish-mother stereotype. The other mother, Georgette Howard (Cynthia Collins), is reflexively snooty, overprotective of her beloved son, and regularly in need of a cocktail.

Jeff  and Annie  throw themselves into a tribute to the wedding couple.
I sometimes sympathize with actors having to give their all in order to produce the illusion that flat characters are growing another dimension before our eyes. Directed by Bill Jenkins, this cast does a good job of it. I felt the only weaknesses were Eastlund's singing, which sometimes wandered off pitch, and Tenéh B.C. Karimu's portrayal of Rebecca's friend Annie Sheps, who ought to have seemed as wholehearted as her opposite number, Jeff Pierpoint as Brian's best buddy, Greg. To single out the moment they matched the best, however: Pierpoint and Karimu poured the ultimate in wedding-serenade pizazz into their soulful tabletop number, "Love You Till the Day."

Michael Ferraro never failed to represent youthful ardor as the groom Brian, and provided half the rapport needed to bring off his song with George, "Back in the Day," a ricky-tick duet designed to celebrate a weak attempt at father-son bonding. The song was typical of the show's musical style. The words were often clever but sometimes obscured by amplification. Somewhat old-fashioned bouncy pieces balance adroitly against tear-jerking pop balladry, like Rebecca's "A Little Bit Less Than" (a show-stopper for Laura Sportiello) and her mother's "What They Never Tell You." The latter occurs just in time to establish the sensitive side of a woman more genuinely characterized by "Nice," which wittily depicts Mrs. Steinberg's recognition that a cutting politeness can be more satisfying than outright rudeness.

Matthew Reeder plays dad Murray Steinberg, a mensch with a minimum of ethnic tics. As wedding planner Albert, John Vessels swept and glided through the action glorying in the complications and intrigue of his job. With his assistants Walt and Mimsy, Albert proclaimed his value in the song "Albert's Turn," neatly brought off in collaboration with Paul Collier Hansen and Holly Stults. Hansen and Stults did double duty as a couple of eccentric Steinberg relatives, the out-of-his-depth Uncle Morty and the flamboyantly sluttish Aunt Sheila, respectively. The show's creators threw caution and plausibility to the winds with the latter character, but she's needed at one point to spill some very important beans.

The title song was particularly well-staged, a credit to Carol Worcel's choreography and the sprightliness of Brent E. Marty's  musical direction. "It Shoulda Been You" riffs verbally off the old standard, "It Had to Be You." The show's title indicates there's nothing inevitable about who ends up with whom. Private preferences about such things are a great source of what we are learning to call "alternative facts."

Who needs to follow what at first seems meant to be? The show argues that when we insist on being authentic — true to ourselves — everything will turn out OK.  It's a hackneyed message that ATI's production delivers with a twist and considerable charm. Well, good luck with that, keeping in mind the Bard's deathless aphorism.

[Photos by Kip Shawger]