Hard Knocks

Have a Nice Life, Conor Mitchell's new musical now premiering as part of the New York Musical Theater Festival, offers up little in the way of originality. And despite what the program notes purport, Mitchell's musical stylings are not revolutionary. Nevertheless, his show proves to be an enjoyable and lighthearted (if by the numbers) musical romp highlighted by Rhonda Miller's excellent choreography and a powerhouse cast led by the fierce Emily Skinner and the fantastic Nichole Ruth Snelson. The formulaic plot focuses on members of a therapy group who gather weekly to confront issues of anger, depression, loneliness, and love. They find their routine shaken when a newcomer arrives and forces them to finally confront their darkest secrets. Each fits a type: the tough, quiet guy; the lovable loser; the eternally unhappy, perky optimist; the angry woman scorned; the vengeful psychopath; the mysterious newcomer; and the group's sensible leader. The situations are contrived and the outcomes obvious within the first 10 minutes. Mitchell and co-writer Matthew Hurt stumble most during an inane Lifetime-esque story line involving postpartum depression and baby napping that takes up far too much of the show.

But as a composer and lyricist, Mitchell does offer up some very good songs. "Other Women" perfectly captures the rage and hidden hurt of scorned women everywhere. "Old Fashioned Romance" is a wonderful ode to the days of wine and roses. And the Cabaret-inspired "Hate Mail in the Morning" is a sensational, sexy number that brings down the house.

It is no coincidence that these songs also feature the show's best performers. Skinner is simply sublime as the rage-filled Jean. She delivers a brilliant performance with a soaring voice and comedic timing that befits a 1940s screwball-comedy heroine. Kevin Carolan is equally touching and funny as misfit Chris, while Snelson is divine as the deliciously unstable Barbara. The entire cast benefits greatly from Rhonda Miller's inventive and energetic choreography. She mines her dance catalog to create a thrilling roller-coaster ride of movement—the perfect remedy to Pip Pickering's pedestrian direction.

Nice Life ultimately does overcome its trite scenarios and staid direction. The outstanding cast even manages to overcome an ending that overstays its welcome. And while Mitchell may not be reinventing the world of musical theater, his show is a welcome addition to the genre.

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