The magnificent Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel was never intended to be a theater. With its deep brown paneled walls, almost claustrophobically cozy space, muted lighting, and lush atmosphere, it seems better suited to the intimacy of cabaret (for which it is a historic stomping ground) or to the stealthy maneuvers of a clandestine love affair. But Tajlei Levis and John Mercurio were determined to stretch the stoic walls of this hallowed space to embrace a different sort of creature entirely: a musical comedy. Exploding with charm and infectious songs, their new musical Glimpses of the Moon makes an endearingly predictable—and predictably endearing—evening of classy, frothy entertainment.
Adapted from Edith Wharton’s novel of the same name, Glimpses of the Moon marks another period piece for Levis (book and lyrics) and Mercurio (music), who have become something of literary specialists over the past few years. Their jazzy adaptation of Dawn Powell’s 1940s novel A Time to Be Born played to sold out audiences at the 2006 International Fringe Festival; Glimpses of the Moon also skips happily back into the glamorous days of old New York and was written specifically to be performed in this historic space.
At the performance I attended, the room was at least partially filled by a cluster of the well-heeled Manhattan elite. If, like me, you’re unaccustomed to such luxury, you’ll find that you immediately identify with the central couple, Nick (Stephen Plunkett) and Susy (Patti Murin), two bright and clever individuals who rub shoulders with the upper set—but haven’t a cent of their own. Treasured and admired for their talents (he writes, she dances), Nick and Susy rely on their friends to sponsor their high-brow lives. But when their paths cross, Susy hatches a scheme to get them off the hook forever: she proposes that they get married, trade in the gifts for cash, and stay married for only one year, or until one of them snares a richer spouse.
In the midst of their mischief, however, Nick and Susy unexpectedly fall in love—with each other. They’re unwilling to settle for a life of poverty, however, so they remain determined to find wealthier matches, wounding themselves and each other in the process. Within this deceptively simple story, Wharton asks uncomfortable questions: Can you be happy without money? How much will we compromise ourselves for what we (think we) want?
Mercurio’s bouncy, appealing score enlivens every scene, and the production pops swiftly from one song to the next. Mercurio sits at the grand piano, which serves as the central set piece, and his fiery accompaniment is given depth and texture by Geoff Burke, who contributes captivating counterpoint on flute, clarinet, and saxophone.
Briskly directed by Marc Bruni and quick-stepping to the elegant, compact choreography of Denis Jones, the excellent six-member cast turns in remarkably rich performances in their thinly sketched roles. Beth Glover is perfectly pretentious as Susy’s uppercrust friend Ellie, who uses Susy to conduct her own extramarital escapade, while Daren Kelly turns in a warm and blustery performance as her long-suffering husband. With her snappy, spot-on timing, Laura Jordan very nearly steals the show with her sharp comic performances in two quirky roles. And as the fantastically fussy Streffy, Glenn Peters dexterously delivers an endless stream of witty asides.
As the crafty couple, Plunkett and Murin generate a sweet chemistry during the sweeping title song. Levin hasn’t given much dimension to their characters, however, and the performances suffer a bit from their overwhelming normalness. With her zippy trove of songs and dazzling smile, Murin fares better at making Susy a very nearly quirky heroine—an imperfect ingénue we can root for. And along with the rest of the cast, Murin is draped in a set of gorgeous costumes designed by Lisa Zinni.
A major draw of this production is the opportunity to see a different notable cabaret singer at each performance. Levis and Mercurio have cleverly set one of the scenes in a luxurious hotel—guess which one?—in the elegant Oak Room, where a quarreling Nick and Susy watch a performance of “Right Here, Right Now,” a torchy, “seize the day” ballad that is both poignant and pointed. Cabaret legend KT Sullivan took the stage the night I attended; Susan Lucci and Alison Fraser are among the artists yet to come.
Regrettably, the song that Mercurio and Levis have given their diva is one of the production’s least melodically remarkable, but its lyrics elicit a lovely transformation from Nick and Susy. It’s rare that you get to watch characters watching a performance, and it was fascinating to see how they reacted to the music. Although it skips over darker (and often more interesting) plot possibilities, this production makes an excellent case for the power of song. Set in a cabaret space, where the genuine exchange of music and emotion is de rigueur, Glimpses of the Moon offers a glimmer of honesty that takes musical theater back where it belongs—whether or not it was intended for theater, the Oak Room is currently bringing it up close and personal.