"I give them their heads," Dawn Powell said of her characters. "They furnish their own nooses." A contemporary of Fitzgerald and Hemingway's, the prolific Powell wrote a punchy 1940s novel, A Time to Be Born, that has inspired a musical at the New York International Fringe Festival. "Inspired" is a blurry term, however, since the resulting production (with music by John Mercurio and book/lyrics by Tajlei Levis) incorporates little of Powell's reputed wit and venom. This lengthy, under-directed, but sweet musical depicts New York on the brink of World War II, when the cosmopolitan crowd was still obsessed with fashion, etiquette, and scandal (imagine that!). At the center of everything is Amanda Keeler Evans (Maria Couch), an aggressive social climber who has snared a wealthy and stuffy husband. Although his publications dutifully print rave reviews of her ghostwritten work, even Amanda has a more idealistic past, and when old flame Ken Saunders (James Sasser) resurfaces, she wants him back in her life. On the run from a broken engagement, Amanda's former hometown friend Vicky (Christy Morton) turns up asking for help, and Amanda concocts the perfect scheme—housing mousy Vicky in an apartment that Amanda and Ken can use for surreptitious lunchtime encounters. When sparks begin to fly between Ken and Vicky, however, a tense romantic triangle materializes.
Under Marlo Hunter's earnest but tepid direction, Levis's adaptation is overwhelmingly antiseptic and surprisingly sexless for a story so teeming with vitriolic gossip and thwarted passion. Mercurio's music, an amalgam of styles ranging from jazzy, Cy Coleman-esque torch songs to pulsing, contemporary musical-theater power anthems, is generally pleasing, if unmemorable.
Burdened with tedious exposition and a pocketful of repetitious songs, the production is most persuasive when its characters are candid and cutthroat. Couch is dynamic and deviously delightful as the tyrannical Amanda, while the velvet-voiced Sasser impresses as brooding writer Ken. But Morton is the show's revelation as fish-out-of-water Vicky, whose transformation to city girl is so complete that she begins to affect a Katharine Hepburn-inspired upper-crust accent.
Powell's progressiveness is evident in the presence of two strong female characters who desire not only a man but a prestigious, rewarding career. In diluting Powell's vigor, however, A Time to Be Born loses the zest that would transform this somewhat mushy romance into a razor-sharp character study.