It seems hard to believe that Cougar the Musical is celebrating a year’s run Off-Broadway at St. Luke’s Theatre. The show brings to mind those mismatched couples one sees periodically who provoke the thought: “What’s she doing with him?” (Or vice versa.) In this case, the unprepossessing half is the show itself, a smartly crafted, moderately pleasant musical comedy about three women who seek sexual liberation in middle age.
The women — Clarity, Mary-Marie and Lily — are played by actresses who have been with the show from early days (respectively, Brenda Braxton, Babs Winn and Mary Mossberg); they are joined by a newcomer, Andrew Brewer, who plays a variety of young studs (and one female). Collectively, they are the element that makes one’s head turn — superb talent making a good deal of hot air seem like it's propelling a shiny zeppelin.
Written primarily by Donna Moore, with additional music by Mark Barkan, John Baxindine, Arnie Gross, Meryl Leppard and Seth Lefferts in a variety of combinations, Cougar has the requisite “he done me wrong” song, as Lily, having filed divorce papers, finds herself in the dating pool again and attending Over 40 and Fabulous meetings. Mary-Marie is the wealthy proprietress of a bar for older women, a “den of antiquity”; although she is persistently wooed by the unseen Frank, she resists dating a man her own age (54) and is determined to find a young stud for sex. The third heroine, Clarity, is a self-possessed career woman who has raised her child and denied herself any physical relationship, apart from one with a personal mechanical device, which she sings about in the evening’s most cringe-inducing song, “Julio.” But Braxton radiates so much class that she makes it palatable — barely.
The women all connect in a manicurist’s office, and the song they sing there, “Shiny and New,” is one of the highlights of the show. In fact, the female power anthems — “I’m My Own Queen,” “My Terms,” “Love Is Ageless” and “Say Yes” (whose sentiment uncomfortably echoes that of “Yes” from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 70, Girls, 70, and is used in the same preachy, affirmative way) — are less interesting than the ones that have to do with character.
One of the best of them is “Let’s Talk About Me,” a Cole Porter-ish list song that name-checks Alvin Ailey, Eva Gabor, Stephen Hawking and Manolo Blahnick, among others, in its clever lyrics. It’s sung by Lily and Buck, a would-be actor who’s working as the bartender at Mary-Marie’s watering hole, and Brewer and Mossberg lend a delicate touch to the romantic banter so that you’d almost think they were the leads in a Porter show.
The songs, however, are hung on a book that often settles for sitcom humor. When Lily meets Mary-Marie and tells the story of how she was shoehorned into the role of mother and housekeeper, she says, “I was doing time.” “Prison?” asks Mary-Marie. “Marriage,” says Lily.
To be fair, a large portion of the audience was having a great time, applauding at the message songs and even lending an occasional shout-out. It’s a truism that the right casting is the most important element of any project, and director/choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett certainly deserves credit for her finds. Winn, with a resemblance to Betty White, summons memories of Sue Ann Nivens, the middle-aged man-trap that White embodied on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Winn is an adroit physical comedian and, like the others, possesses a strong singing voice. As Clarity, Braxton is a crisp, composed presence and the real belter; although the lady is well into middle age, her looks scream, “Thirty-five, max!”
Mossberg’s Lily is a likable linchpin, yet the actress can’t really put over Lily’s life-changing decision about Buck. The notion that an older man and a much younger woman might be emotionally and intellectually soul mates was the core of Woody Allen’s Manhattan back in 1979. That resolution was a daring choice of hope and affirmation, in spite of uncertainty. In 2013, the authors of Cougar advocate a woman’s right to pair with a younger partner, then undercut their message with a plot twist that feels bourgeois, defeatist and unsatisfying, no matter how they spin it.
Brewer, with less than a fortnight under his belt, has seamlessly integrated his characters with the others, and his roles give him ample opportunity to display a wide-ranging talent. His Buck is low-key and genial, while his Latin lover is a bit more high-strung and polished. He delivers hard-boiled noir dialogue adeptly (in a scene that seems out of place), and he sings and dances with panache. He has the looks of a leading man — specifically, Ryan Reynolds, with whom he also shares splendid comic chops. Like the women, he deserves a bigger show for his talents. But for now, they are burnishing Cougar the Musical, and that’s reason enough to check them out.