Noir Song

What defines a Broadway musical? Is it a big, relatable love story set to popular music? Is it full of romantic and character roles perfect for filling with the stars of the day? If you speak to regular theater patrons, they all seem to have a sense of what is and is not suitable for the Broadway stage, even if they cannot elaborate on the criteria used to make the distinction. A successful commercial run depends not only on the show's quality but also on its being produced in the right-sized venue. Adrift in Macao, a film noir parody musical created in an inspired alliance between writer/lyricist Christopher Durang and composer Peter Melnick (grandson of Richard Rodgers), is now enjoying its long-awaited New York premiere Off-Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. While the caliber of the collaborators could have earned the production a spot on the Great White Way, opening at an intimate Off-Broadway house is a great move for this little show. Adrift in Macao has the music and energy (but not quite the script) for a Broadway bow.

Durang's clever though slight story involves a corrupt port town (Macao, China), a nightclub, and its unflappable owner, Rick Shaw. There is also a sultry blond chanteuse (Lureena), a mysterious loner (Mitch), an opium-addled showstopper (Corinna), and an inscrutable Asian manservant/intentional caricature (Tempura). All of them either work for or want something from Rick, and all are being kept from pursuing their own happiness.

There are lots of wordplay-based and "fourth wall"-breaking jokes, such as the response given when one character expresses hope about seeing another character again: "Well, it's a small cast." The thin plot threads fray a bit now and then but are strengthened by the dynamite songs. Melnick's music and Durang's lyrics combine in ditties that recall the jazzy/witty numbers from City of Angels. But while Cy Coleman and David Zippel (also working in noir territory) crafted dark-edged, syncopated songs in minor chords for Angels, Melnick and Durang's songs are bright and "majorly" catchy.

The small cast really sells this material. Rachel De Benedet (Lureena), Michele Ragusa (Corinna), and Orville Mendoza (Tempura) were all Barrymore Award winners for their roles in Philadelphia Theater Company's 2005 production of the show, and, two years later, they are still in fine form. De Benedet is comely and blond enough to look the part of the femme not-so-fatale, and her smoky voice and Mae West way with a double entendre only enhance her appeal.

Ragusa is like a gleefully gone-to-seed Rita Hayworth, with a great comic energy and a glorious belt. Mendoza's Tempura is a wily customer who deals with the racism around him by playing games with people's expectations, defying them or living up to them based on how they benefit him. New York additions Will Swenson (Rick Shaw) and Alan Campbell (Mitch) were a mixed bag; while Swenson and Campbell nailed their low-key characters, they often faded into the background when the ladies or Mendoza came into the picture.

Ninety minutes went by like a pleasant breeze, but the show could benefit from a little more structure. Although critics of musicals often direct their ire at the creaky plot lines in poor examples of the genre, that doesn't mean the shows would be better served without them. There wasn't enough character motivation or action to sustain this show, resulting in a few theatrical bald spots.

However, director Sheryl Kaller and choreographer Christopher Gattelli picked up the slack by keeping the performers and performance in motion. Somehow, Gattelli managed to use retro dance moves in both a tongue-in-cheek and organic way, in some of the handiest choreography I've seen Off-Broadway.

Adrift in Macao isn't as theatrical as Phantom of the Opera, as polished as The Producers, or as full of heart as ... well, no examples come to mind. Perhaps if the script were beefed up, the ensemble expanded, and the budget tripled, it might become one of those big Broadway shows. The question is, Would it be as enjoyable? Macao is a scrappy, off-the-wall tuner that is completely self-aware and succeeds in delighting the socks off its audience. This B-musical brings its A-game.

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