'Bright Lights' Glares Hard at the Gimme Set
By Jan Stuart
Any trendy Manhattan restaurant that sticks around longer than a case of food poisoning deserves its own anthem. Paul Scott Goodman, the composer and author of the musical "Bright Lights, Big City," couldn't have chosen a watering hole more songworthy than Odeon, that enduring TriBeCa mecca for the fabulous and the fit (fabulous-in-training). Everybody now: "Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-deon! Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-deon!"
The refrain never gets any more complicated than that. This is because the chorus of diners singing its praises is too high on cocaine, martinis, power and the scent of sexual conquest to make like Cole Porter. This, after all, is Odeon in its '80s infancy, when greed and gimme-gimme propelled the city's young movers and shakers. Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-dious!
You needn't have lived through that era of less-than-divine-decadence to catch the whiff of deja vu that hangs over "Bright Lights, Big City," from the first sight of its double-tiered steel set to the intro in which the blond hero throws head and arms back in pounding song with a guy on an electric guitar.
If you've seen "Rent," you've been there. As has Michael Greif, the director of both that sensational rock version of "La Boheme" and this hyperactive new adaptation of Jay McInerney's best-selling novel. "Bright Lights, Big City" could be seen as Part 2 in Greif's musical diptych of la dolce vita in a waning 20th-Century New York City. If "Rent" was a valentine for the city's disenfranchised, "Bright Lights" is a wary nod to its young enfranchised, the gainfully employed up-and-comers who stretch their starter incomes to live in the right neighborhoods, eat at the best joints according to New York magazine and ferret out the quality drug dealers.
Following the lead of McInerney's book and the 1988 film with Michael J. Fox, "Bright Lights" traces the downward spiral of Jamie, a 24-year-old magazine fact checker from the hinterlands whose job, marriage and writing aspirations are imperiled by his hard-playing nightlife regimen. As played by Patrick Wilson, a magnetic and engaging new find with an elastic tenor that won't quit, Jamie gives off the spoiling milk-fed air of a door-to-door Watchtower salesman who's decided that Penthouse readers have more fun.
In a breathless cascade of ever-shifting locales and characters, Greif's chameleonic, big-throated chorus impersonates Jamie's circle of influences: his estranged fashion-model wife (Napiera Daniele Groves), his carousing buddy (Jerry Dixon), his impatient boss (a fine Jacqueline B. Arnold), his concerned brother (John Link Graney, making a super stage debut), a budding romantic interest (a charismatic Natascia A. Diaz), his late mother, seen in flashbacks (AnnMarie Milazzo, providing a needed infusion of warmth) and various workmates and city dwellers. Drifting in and out of these encounters is the specter of a doomed runaway (Liza Lapira) who haunts Jamie's waking dreams like a fatalistic ghost of Christmas future.
Rounding out the cast is the composer himself, a long-maned Scot who kicks the show off on an amiable note and provides an empathetic musical alter ego for Jamie, whom he shadows with a diminishing lack of purpose over the evening. Goodman's rock score is surging but stingy in the melody department.
Goodman is capable of seductive hooks, most notably a recurring tabloid chant called "Coma Baby" and a lovely Act 2 topper called "Kindness," but he tosses them off before they ignite, as if developing a big musical moment would be too Rodgers and Hammerstein for such a cool, today show as this. The result is a score that impresses with its malleability but rarely rises to the emotional demands of its protagonist's journey.
Goodman's parsimony is echoed in the now-trademark "musical staging" of Greif, a minimalist approach to choreography that presumes that real, worked-through dances would punch a hole in the carefully stylized realism. Yuppies don't do production numbers! (As if they sing in the subway. Hello?)
This laid-back approach to movement may have worked for the Lower East Side grit of "Rent," but it grows quickly tiresome in a show whose pulsing nightlife milieu screams for a real choreographer. One need only revisit Bob Fosse's wickedly satiric "Rich Man's Frug" in "Fosse" to appreciate the wasted opportunity to differentiate via dance Goodman's club crawl through such famed '80s night spots as Area, the Saint and the Tunnel.
The good news is that Goodman can write a mean lyric. At its best (as in a francophobic rant, "I Hate the French"), "Bright Lights" crackles with citrusy rhymes that serve as a theatrical correlative for McInerney's wily prose. But Greif and Goodman's restless constellation of motifs and faces finally keeps us at too much of a distance for its own good. The lights can be blinding, but in the end this city seems too small, and small-minded, to care about.
Copyright 1999, Newsday Inc.