The Usual: A Musical Love Story
April 21, 2012
The Rogue in Reviews, Williamston Theatre, musicals, new/original plays

The boy-meets-girl story is as old as the guy-walks-into-a-bar joke; to keep the listener’s attention, either one had better deliver an unexpected wallop. Enter The Usual: A Musical Love Story, a modern boy-walks-into-a-bar-meets-girl caper with book and lyrics by Alan Gordon and music by Mark Sutton-Smith. In the world-premiere production at Williamston Theatre, director Tony Caselli takes the most shopworn chestnut in the world and plunges into two acts of off-the-wall digression celebrating the latest trends in romance, technology, recreation, and other curios of human behavior.

The scene is a drastically underpopulated watering hole, the perfect place for self-proclaimed nerd king Kip (Joseph Zettelmaier) and frustrated serial Internet dater Valerie (Emily Sutton-Smith) to meet cute. Under the knowing gaze of textbook proprietor-bartender Sam (Leslie Hull), the two hurtle straight into the friend zone, despite showing compatibility that may be visible from space. For this pair, it’s less a matter of whether they will get together than when and how; thus, with self-imposed arbitrary obstacles firmly in place, the plot is free to veer and wind into strange and amazing territory while the realtionship, shall we say, ferments.

Against Daniel C. Walker’s sumptuous, ever-surprising wide backdrop, the expository bar scenes are decent in the aggregate. Although Zettelmaier sells his geeky humor with goofy confidence and Sutton-Smith expertly wields a guarded subtext, the generally tepid chemistry between them give the intervals and ballads an obligatory feel. Yet their ruminations on interpersonal and romantic game play springboard into increasingly fruitful tangents, from a startlingly honest confession, to a song extolling one particular aspect of female independence, to the nostalgia of a forgotten, obsolete computer console. The material doesn’t shy away from pretty frank discussions of sex and pleasure; from another point on the leisure continuum, a glorious foray into 8-bit escapism has tremendous visual and comic appeal. Lack of fireworks aside, the romantic leads have an otherwise strong interplay, encouraging the viewer to cheer for them separately and together. In addition to lending classic favorite-bartender schtick and terrific vocals (under music direction by Jeff English), Hull puts in overtime bringing the virtual worlds to life, cementing the cast as a triumvirate.

With so many balls to keep in the air, the production does its best to harness and unify the scattershot content. Between the boozy trivia segues, risqué flashbacks, and galloping fantasy sequences, this show aims to cover a lot of ground — particularly with respect to our relationship with technology — and lets fly with too many references to count. The atmosphere is one of infinite possibilities, in which designers’ imaginations run wild (particularly the outsized contributions of costumer Holly Iler and properties mistress Lynn Lammers), a necessary investment for a narrative that takes more than a couple hard left turns. The largest showcases are extravagant all-hands-on-deck affairs, and the action is always better for the appearance of a couple of bar back types (Brandon Piper and Carolyne Rex) to transition and facilitate. Completing the spectacles are Dana Brazil’s dizzying choreography and full-spectrum lighting effects by Ryan Davies.

The result is almost a case of mistaken identity, a show that purports to be one thing and then zooms into uncharted territory, setting up every expectation and then launching off on a rollercoaster of its own making. The analogy extends to the ups, downs, and constantly changing thematic scenery of this wild and whirling production, which offers viewers an exhilirating, if occasionally bumpy, ride. Here, The Usual is best and most consistent in its silliness, indulging every curious and unconnected whim to put a contemporary spin on the oldest one in the book.

The Usual: A Musical Love Story is no longer playing.
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