In a nutshell: Paul Scott Goodman's sung-through-rock version of Jay McInerney's 1984 novel.
History: Goodman, a Glasgow-born musician and former publicist for Keith Moon, says he originally got the idea to adapt McInerney's book in the mid '80s but didn't work on it again until 1996, which is, coincidentally, the year that the huge hit Rent was first produced at this same theater.
Audience: Devotees of brat-pack lit ephemera.
Buzz: Bright Lights, Big Disappointment
Big picture: For those who have managed to avoid the novel, a quick summary: Young Ivy League alum loses wife and job, does too many drugs, ultimately blames everything on mom's death, finds redemption.
In several interviews, author McInerney has said that when first approached about this project, his initial reaction was to ask whether the world needed another version of his 1984 novel. The quick answer to his rhetorical question: no.
The musical gets off on the wrong foot and never recovers. Paul Scott Goodman, guitar strapped around his neck, takes the stage solo, introduces himself and explains, in rhyming songspeak, how McInerney's book reminded him of his own early days in New York. He then remains onstage for the entire musical, providing a narration that director Michael Greif evidently feels is necessary to link the songs. It's an unsuccessful gamble that is particularly intrusive in scenes such as the one in which Jamie and his wife kiss. Just steps away is Goodman, strumming his guitar and nattering on in his wide Scottish brogue.
Granted, Goodman chose a difficult task: McInerney's novel, essentially a long, self-absorbed monologue, does not easily lend itself to adaptation. However, with its nasty mean streak, the book does capture a certain swath of '80s excess. The same cannot be said of the current endeavor, much of which is just plain off the mark. Despite the energetic performers, the musical fails to convey any real sense of New York, of publishing or of the era. In addition to the peculiar direction and narration, the distractions include Goodman's book and lyrics (e.g., "Mommy used to take you to see mummies at the Met-Met"; "We hear the sounds of his typer being hyper once again") and the overly utilitarian sets (Gotham Magazine may as well be a Gap counter in the year 2001). And, in what surely must be the worst role of the year, one of the actors must play a fetus, the "coma baby" that Jamie keeps reading about in the Post.
Among the play's good points: a catchy title song (people were humming it at intermission), the melodious "Heart and Soul" number and the fact that Jamie is less obnoxious than in the book.
Bright Lights, Big City was the wrong project on which to pin hopes for the next Rent. New York Theatre Workshop, which launched Jonathan Larson's musical three years ago, hired the same director and design team, but despite similar elements -- downtown demimonde setting, rock score, racially diverse casting (and fresh-faced, unknown actors) -- it's a no-go this time around.
Postscript: If it's New York in the '80s you're after, rent Desperately Seeking Susan instead.