Halsted Theatre Centre
Beneath the surface of this perky, energetic, somewhat empty-headed musical revue lurks an amazingly pessimistic attitude about relationships. Everyone in the show is lonely and desperate but too hung up or scared or depressed or world-weary to open up to another person. "I can't believe I want to go through that again," one character complains, hesitating on the brink of love. Another suggests: "Let's call it quits before it goes bad." Hardly the stuff of true romance.
Of course, pessimism about love is hardly new in musical theater. Stephen Sondheim in particular has built a career on songs that acknowledge the ambivalence and festering loneliness within all of us. However, what makes Personals so strange is the degree to which everyone is resigned to defeat and solitude--the characters even seem to prefer the deadening certainties of "TV for one" to the scary uncertainties of living with another person.
Mind you, Personals never gets oppressive. In fact, its dark undercurrent is often at odds with the show's many bouncy, witty tunes. Written by a committee of three book writers and lyricists (David Crane, Seth Friedman, and Marta Kauffman) and six composers (William Dreskin, Joel Phillip Friedman, Seth Friedman, Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, and Michael Skloff), Personals quickly casts off its implied theme--how newspaper personals influence love--in favor of the more universal topic of love, sweet and sour.
Billed as a musical, Personals is really a musical revue--a loosely structured, largely unconnected evening of sketches and songs. Like a revue, and unlike a musical, Personals does not waste much time on character development. In fact, many of the show's characters hop in for a song or sketch or two and then hop out, never to be seen again. And instead of one story line, Personals follows a half dozen or so.
A few characters, however, reappear throughout the show: a young divorced woman who can't handle being single again, a lonely, nerdy guy who thinks he can learn about love from a how-to cassette, a single woman who is desperate to get involved with someone now that she's 30. Their stories run the gamut from the trite (the young man searches everywhere for his true love only to discover she lives next door) to the silly (a middle-aged couple find true happiness when they let a bizarre dwarf into their lives) to the truly moving (the divorcee's halfhearted attempts to rejoin the singles scene yield two of the best songs in the show, "I Think You Should Know" and "Michael").
In keeping with the show's subtle nihilism, all of the most realistic sketches end unhappily. The divorced woman remains alone. The budding love affair between the shy guy and the desperate 30-year-old doesn't work out. The only story with a happy ending--about the dwarf who moves in with a bored older couple--is so unbelievable it can't be taken as anything but pure fantasy.
The songs are for the most part disappointing, considering the caliber of the show's composers: nice tunes, by and large, dragged down by their all-too-often weak and forgettable lyrics. For every wonderful song ("I Think You Should Know" contains the terrific couplet "I wish I'd cleaned up the apartment / You have nice skin," and "Michael" has a haunting refrain, "Michael, marry me, again"), the show contains another that is significantly less than wonderful.
The worst of the lot is "A Night Alone," which tries to elicit sympathy for a lonely guy who can't decide whether to watch TV or just mope around the apartment on a Saturday night. It was hard to repress the urge to stand up and shout, "Oh, grow up. Quit acting like a 15-year-old!"
Happily, the show's talented cast of fine-voiced actors and versatile singers, under the direction of Calvin MacLean, is quite capable of transforming all but the worst material into palatable entertainment. And when the material is good--watch out. Mary Hager's rendition of "Michael" was so beautiful it raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Singing without mikes, this tight-knit group gave the show a warm cabaret feel.
Chris Banholzer, Dan Ferretti, and Matt McDonald all show considerable ability as comic actors. McDonald in particular can transform even the lamest material. Without his good-natured comic delivery, the bits about the dwarf would certainly have seemed too tasteless to be funny.
Mark Elliott's intelligent musical direction also adds a lot to this show, as does the five-member band he leads. I wish I could say the same about Wini Haun's undistinguished choreography and Walter P. Martishius's functional but very odd set--dominated by two refrigerator-shaped monoliths on wheels.
Although it's peppered with plug-'em-in, crank-'em-out local references--to Scoozi, the tollway, Treasure Island--Personals remains what it obviously always was, a show by, for, and about New Yorkers. Only New Yorkers could bear to live lives of such unexamined, fatalistic pessimism. Whether a superficially cheerful revue based on such desperate loneliness will appeal to Chicagoans remains to be seen.