Less Than Perfect

Last month, the a cappella musical In Transit opened Off-Broadway at 59E59. Although flawed, I found the show charming and amusing, as I said in my review for offoffonline. This month another a cappella musical, Perfect Harmony, opened at The Acorn on Theatre Row. It seems that the success of Glee has spawned a burgeoning theater subgenre: shows with singing but without instruments. In the case of Perfect Harmony, I’d have to say, unfortunately, without glee too. I’ll admit upfront that I am a huge Glee fan (aka a “Gleek”). And, to be fair, Perfect Harmony actually came before the hit FOX TV show, premiering at the 2006 New York International Fringe Festival, with an extended run as part of the 2006 Fringe Encore Series. It also enjoyed a sold-out run at The Clurman on Theatre Row in 2008 (see earlier offoffonline review) and most recently spent four weeks out-of-town at the Stoneham Theater in Massachusetts.

Glee and Perfect Harmony share many similar plot points and devices: a high school setting; classic character types (jock, nerd, closeted gay guy, slut, virgin); novel vocal arrangements of popular songs from the past; even the road to a national championship for dueling singing groups. In the case of Perfect Harmony, those competitors from an elite private school are the 17-time champs, The Acafellas, and their less successful female counterparts, The Ladies in Red, now going by their new name, Lady Treble.

But where Glee is indeed gleeful in its depiction of high school misfits brought together by their shared love of music, Perfect Harmony is less so. While there are some funny bits and a few moments of genuine musical magic, Perfect Harmony goes overboard by burdening its characters with not-so-subtle quirks that quickly become tiresome, even annoying: the Type A leader of the girl group constantly spouts malapropisms; the backbone of the boy band is essentially mute; the in-the-shadows, pushover manager of Lady Treble suffers from Tourette’s; the squeaky-voiced Serbian spitfire sings the wrong lyrics to all the songs. You get the idea. All the characterizations are excessive. While many in the audience laughed at these forced eccentricities, many others groaned at their obviousness. Put me in the latter category.

That’s not to say that a show like Perfect Harmony needs to be anything more than what it essentially is: a musical mockumentary, and a campy one at that. As conceived and directed by Andrew Grosso, there is a lot of potential in Perfect Harmony. In particular, some of the vocal arrangements by musical directors Ray Bailey and Adam Wachter of cheesy ’80s tunes are fun and fresh. (I won’t list the musical numbers so as not to let the cat out of the bag for those of you who may want to see the show.) And Perfect Harmony is a ripe parody of such recent saccharine Disney hits as High School Musical and Camp Rock.

But casting actors who can sing instead of singers who can act is the biggest problem with Perfect Harmony. Where the songs should soar (think of the resplendent “Don’t Stop Believin’” from Glee), most fall flat. It is hard to believe that the Acafellas, with their corny choreography and only passable vocals, could have actually won a national singing competition. Lady Treble is even less successful in its singing sections.

Furthermore, in a town as rich with talent as New York, it would benefit the show greatly if the cast were closer in age to high schoolers than graduate students (or older). None of them, aside from Jarid Faubel, who plays goofy athlete JB, and Kelly McCreary, as gotta-dance, Jesus-loving Meghan, even embody teenage mannerisms or body language.

The enthusiastic Faubel and McCreary fare best in a cast that is underserved by a chatty script that should spend more time singing and less time talking. Trimming 15 to 20 minutes of dialogue would greatly help quicken the pace. Trimming some of the weak jokes would help too. At close to an hour and 45 minutes, Perfect Harmony, simply goes on too long, fizzling out with a lackluster finale.

According to the press release, the producers are planning to move the show to another space following the run at the Acorn (which ends next weekend on November 13). My advice would be to find an auditorium with better acoustics or mike the performers to add a little more energy to the songs. Right now the 199-seat space swallows up the voices instead of allowing them room to breathe. A smaller venue might be a better choice as well to bring the audience more into the action. And please cut the obscenity at the end of Kerri’s song at nationals — as the Lady Treble manager with hidden talent, Marie-France Arcilla has the best voice in the cast and that unnecessary curse spoiled her one moment in the spotlight. (Arcilla also does double duty as flamboyant vocal couch Tobi McClintoch, one of the best — and funniest — moments in the entire show.)

With the success of Glee, there is obviously an audience out there for a show like this. And Perfect Harmony already has fans as evidenced by their multiple successful runs, popular website, and Facebook page. I’m not sure if the show is still in development, but with some tweaks and some recasting, plus a bigger, bolder final number, Perfect Harmony could inch closer to perfection. As of now, it still has a long way go.

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