"Bright Lights Big City": The Clubs! The Snorts! The Rhymes! (Last Resorts)
By PETER MARKS
You are not the kind of a guy who would be at the wrong theater at this time of the evening. But here you are in your seat, the lights go down, and before your eyes a spunky, racially diverse group of young people appears on a metallic, multilevel scaffold. Wearing microphones that hang from their ears like swizzle sticks, they begin to perform a lively rock musical that's set in the tumultuous New York of the recent past.
You hear them singing about drugs and sex. Now you're really confused. In the dark of the New York Theater Workshop you fumble for your ticket. Can it be? Have you accidentally stumbled back into "Rent"? No, the stub confirms it. You are indeed in Row F, seat 10 for "Bright Lights Big City," the new musical based on Jay McInerney's cool 1984 tale of urban alienation, his breakthrough novel that mythologized the hard-shelled, hedonistic night life of Reagan-era Manhattan (and popularized the use of second-person singular as a narrative device).
You are comforted at being in the right place. But the feeling doesn't last. It's replaced, in fact, by the intense desire to be sitting once again through "Rent." For though it tries in uncountable ways to ride piggyback on that megahit rock opera, born on the same stage and shepherded to success by the same director, Michael Greif, "Bright Lights Big City," which opened last night, easily qualifies as the most frustrating experience of this bottom-drawer season for the American musical.
Chockablock with talent, expending enough energy to power up the sound systems in a dozen discos, the show is such a confounding marriage of good intentions and misguided ideas that your heart breaks at the thought of what might have been, had someone provided real guidance for the musical's composer and book writer, Paul Scott Goodman.
Blessed, for instance, with some of the most appealing new theater music on a local stage, "Bright Lights Big City" is also saddled with just about the most insufferable lyrics imaginable. A rhyme-it-with-anything desperation infects virtually every song. "Pierre Cardin/Your coq au vin/Has got a lousy stench," the protagonist, called Jamie here, declares in "I Hate the French."
This excruciating number forms with two others, "I Love Drugs" and "I Wanna Have Sex Tonight," a trinity of tortures matched only on the New York stage today by any three offerings from "Jekyll and Hyde."
The more fundamental problem of this musical adaptation, however, is one of misconception. McInerney's novel, about an unnamed, aspiring writer working as a magazine fact checker by day and snorting cocaine in the clubs by night, casts New York as a soul-crushing cesspool for a young man abandoned by his wife, a fashion model, and deep in unresolved grief for his dead mother. In the musical Goodman, a Scottish-born songwriter, conjures the dramatic personae of McInerney's fast, funny and poignant read, among them: Tad Allagash (Jerry Dixon), the swinger adman; Clara (Jacqueline Arnold), the uptight head fact checker and Vicky (Natascia Diaz), the cerebral love interest. (All this and the Coma Baby sings, too!)
But there is utter distortion in Goodman's dismissal of the irony in the title. His bright lights are those that shine on the wide-eyed optimist, his Manhattan a sterile Fantasy Island. "Bright lights, big city/I fell in love with you/With all my heart and soul," Goodman sings in the opening number.
Greif pointlessly puts the composer on the stage as a scruffy, guitar-strumming troubadour, not unlike the musicians wandering through "There's Something About Mary." He's supposed to be the voice inside the head of Jamie (Patrick Wilson), the unnamed writer-hero of the novel. It's a voice, though, that betrays none of McInerney's New York-style wit or cynicism. Goodman delivers his lines in a thick Scottish accent, which doesn't aid in the cause of authenticity either.
The musical refers constantly to the names, places and activities that bring to mind the Manhattan of the period: Christie Brinkley and the Tunnel, Ivan Boesky and Area, Steve Rubell and Studio 54. Name dropping is all it remains. Suggesting the hipness of an earlier age, especially one that people remember so vividly, is very dangerous, and Greif and Goodman do not successfully clear the minefields.
It's difficult not to giggle when the ensemble begins a tribute to a popular downtown restaurant with "Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Odeon!" No matter how many of Angela Wendt's stylish outfits you dress them in, never for a New York minute do you believe that these clean-cut young people form the dissipated ensemble of the first coke-snorting musical. Why, you find yourself wondering, aren't all these nice kids doing "Merrily We Roll Along"? And why, for that matter, in a musical set in the clubs, is there virtually no choreography?
As he demonstrated in "Rent," Greif is most adept at spotting and harnessing the raw energy of young performers. This proves again to be his only potent weapon: The cast brims with confidence and spirit. As Amanda, the model who disappears from Jamie's life, Napiera Daniele Groves is a beguiling presence. Others with memorable moments include Dixon, singing the second-act opener "It's Great to Be Back in the City"; Annmarie Milazzo as Jamie's mother, delivering a passionate summation of maternal love in "Happy Birthday Darling," and John Link Graney, in his professional debut as Jamie's brother.
Wilson sings well but is aloof and inpenetrable as the elusive Jamie, and Carla Bianco has the impossible assignment of playing a singing figure on a "Missing" poster who arrives onstage in blood-soaked panties to advise Jamie to stay close to his family.
"Bright Lights Big City" tries so hard to say so many things that it ends up tripping all over itself. It may be more fun to watch than "Parade" or "Captains Courageous," but that's not really saying much. For all its attempts to capitalize on memories of "Rent," this ham-handed production only makes you pine for the finer evening of musical theater that show represents.
Oh, for the good old days of drugs and disease on the Lower East Side.
Thursday, February 25, 1999
Copyright 1999 The New York Times