at the Civic Theatre

During intermission at the opening of Aspects of Love, a group of people tried to pinpoint this musical's cultural antecedents. The Bloomsbury group? After all, David Garnett, whose 1955 novel is the show's source, was married to Virginia Woolf's niece. How about D.H. Lawrence, Garnett's mentor? No, Noel Coward is more like it. Or maybe Barbara Cartland. Or Judith Krantz. What the hell--All My Children.

All of these are appropriate comparisons for this high-gloss soap opera about a decades-long love pentangle between an actress, a young soldier, the soldier's artist uncle, a sculptress, and the daughter of the actress and the uncle. But what Aspects of Love reminds me of most is Taster's Choice commercials--the ones where the bachelor with the heavy attitude pursues his sexy but icy neighbor by offering her a cup of freeze-dried coffee. These commercials, presented as a serial drama with several episodes, seem to be about the sexual manners of the upper class, but all they're really about is selling coffee. All Aspects of Love is really about is selling tickets--and at the top price of $55 they're a good deal more expensive than freeze-dried coffee.

The plot is simple enough: athletic young Alex Dillingham is smitten with beautiful Rose Vibert and invites her to dally with him at his uncle's estate. He doesn't tell her that he hasn't gotten his uncle's permission, however, so when the middle-aged uncle, painter George Dillingham, hears that his house has been broken into, he naturally investigates. Fairly quickly Rose ditches Alex for George--and when George's current companion, a bisexual sculptress named Giulietta Trapani, takes a shine to Rose too everything seems just peachy. A dozen years later Alex reenters Rose's life to find that she has a nymphet of a daughter--to whom, of course, Alex takes quite a shine. George's overprotective reaction brings on a fatal heart attack--that'll teach him to stand in the way of free love--and Alex ends up with Giulietta, though he's still obsessed with rambling Rose.

Toward its goal of getting the asses in the seats (as David Mamet put it so eloquently in Speed-the-Plow) this touring production, directed by Robin Phillips, depicts the story's languid liaisons with plenty of show-biz chic. Phillip Silver's set, a simple but imaginative network of off-white gauzy curtains, combines with Louise Guinand's lustrous lighting and Ann Curtis's elegant costumes to evoke a soft-focus world of sexual memory. Andrew Lloyd Webber's score, though it contains only two distinct musical themes--one imitative of Edward Elgar, the other of Tchaikovsky--nonetheless recycles those themes with plenty of lush loveliness (thanks in large part to the pseudo-classical orchestrations created by David Cullen and Larry Wilcox in collaboration with the composer).

But with one notable exception, Aspects of Love comes across dramatically as so insistently trivial and mannered that it doesn't even qualify as good daytime drama. Its luxurious commercialism completely betrays the story's pretensions to philosophical bohemianism; and once the audience doesn't believe that the characters are neo-pagan sexual adventurers breaking the bonds of traditional morality, then all the story boils down to is garden-variety wife swapping, even if the garden itself is unusually lush.

The exception is Keith Michell as George. In a role that many TV celebrities of his age and stature might have been content to just walk through, Michell delivers a subtle characterization as a libertine who's suddenly desperate to make a relationship last and frightened that his very desperation will make the relationship fail. That relationship is not with any of his lovers but with his daughter--and through her, with himself as he faces the end of life and pleasure. Playing George with just the right blend of energy and ennui, Michell uses his finely textured baritone to put life into Don Black and Charles Hart's generally clunky libretto; he can make lines like "Life goes on, love goes free" and "Has somebody stolen my copy of Brave New World?" equally vivid and credible as musical drama. The man is a master.

His stalwart but rather stereotyped supporting cast is less effective. Tenor Ron Bohmer heaves and hams his way through the role of Alex, though to his credit he is up to the multiple demands of this role: he's handsome and agile and has a high voice. As Rose, Linda Balgord buries her fine soprano under a breathy delivery; she's trying to register passion, but it just sounds asthmatic--or screechy, when the overloaded reverb kicks in at the big moments. Only in Michell's richly flavored performance does Aspects of Love suggest the human complexity Garnett was trying to illuminate; the rest of the time, it's just freeze-dried fast food.

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