A WONDERFUL NOISE (Villanova): Noise but not wonderful

Excerpted by kind permission from Neals Paper.
noise -- interiorMichael Hollinger and Vance Lemkuhl’s musical is lacking in conflict and complexity. A tame curio that never goes beyond being “cute”, it never comes close to absorbing you in a love story that takes place at barbershop quartet competition in St. Louis during the first week of December, 1941.

A WONDERFUL NOISE begins with a romance. One of the guys writes poetry his girlfriend, and soulmate, sets to music. The girl is ambitious and want to leave her small Show Me State town for a bigger city with bigger prospects. She chooses Philadelphia, which is an odd choice for the ’40s, considering how little music originated there in that decade.

The boy carries a torch for the girl. The girl misses the boy enough to convince three of her friends, including two Jewish sisters, to enter the St. Louis barbershop competition as men. Primarily because women are not permitted to compete, and she wants to make a statement about that.

Chip, the boy, is unaware his girlfriend, Mae, is in St. Louis. Mae is quite certain where Chip, a dedicated barbershopper, will be and longs to see him and to find out if they can rekindle their relationship and to see if she can lure him to return to Philadelphia with her. The course of Chip and Mae’s love does not go smooth, but its rough spots don’t have any impact in “A Wonderful Voice.” Hollinger and Lemkuhl seem more conscientious about being politically correct and inoffensive, in a 21st century college student’s absolute, way, than to risk leeting Chip or Mae do anything too mean or hurtful. Besides, in this musical, romance, no matter whom it affects, is always an incidental plot detail thought up to keep something happening on stage. You know Mae’s purpose and feel Chip’s affection towards her, but all remains academic. Their relationship is like kissing withour saliva. Nothing fires anybody up. Hollinger and Lemkuhl write their plot by the numbers. Nothing seems organic, not even the coincidence that two single Jewish adults are a hotel wall apart from each other, in St. Louis.

Even when matters get confused, no one in A WONDERFUL NOISE really seems to be in quandary. Plot twists stay as much on the surface level as everything else, so no sequence seems to give this musical, or Power’s direction of it, any gas. It move forward at a steady but not engaging pace. Cute though it is, “A Wonderful Noise” is never lovable or even precious in a sentimental way. Easygoing as the production is, this show has nothing going on to absorb you or make you care about any of its characters except on the most superficial level. Power directs well in terms of keeping the pace hopping, but she can’t be expected to propel a piece that remains decidedly pedestrian.

There are a couple of amusing dance numbers, most notably one with Dan Cullen and Matthew Moorhead (“Chit Chat”), but in general A WONDERFUL NOISE doesn’t make enough of a commotion, create enough merriment, or explore the human heart enough to be more than a light diversion. Blow on its fluff, and, poof, it’s gone.

Oh, “Noise” hints at matters that might be construed as salient issues if they weren’t so matter-of-factly and innocently brought to the fore. Even the war, when it spurs consideration of conscientious objection and arises as an immediate reality, is handled with efficient shrift that grants America’s greatest 20th century conflict minimal utilitarian importance. It becomes one more unaffecting, ineffectual plot device, a neat way to hint at gravitas, rather than something to interest us and makes us think of the conflict ahead and what it might mean to the young adults we’ve been watching for two hours. And particularly to the conscientious objector (thrown in, I think, to appeal to 21st century liberal sensibility about war).

You’d think that in a show about barbershop quartets, you would some good old-fashioned singing, but few full barbershop numbers are done — There are fewer here than you get in passing in “The Music Man.” — and when they are, they don’t seem to advance anything or make you swoon to tight harmonies and witty arrangements.

Even though Hollinger and Lehmkul are capable of crafting some nifty lyrics and deliver one song, about the libido of a one-legged young woman, that shows ingenuity, this one bright spot can’t surmount the sappiness of the book and the lack of any real drama. Speed and suddenness are often the culprits. Conflicts tend to be introduced out of the convenient blue and resolved, in a goody-two-shoes way, just as quickly. Even the song about the one-legged gal was controversial for a mere 30 seconds. As it involves sex, the barbershop judges fpunf the song risqué and warned the group not to sing another like it. Which they didn’t. End of conflict. Breeze of story.

Distribution of labor among characters is also a problem. While the male ensemble shows a lot of distinct variation and makes individual impressions, including the ubiquitous, many-roled Kyle Fennie, the female contingent is mostly amorphous. Only two of the girls get to show any individual personality. The Jewish sisters are barely fleshed out. The most important thing about one of them is she carries a Hebrew prayer book that lets the single Jewish barbershopper know he may have found a love interest. The other is simply told constantly she is the prettiest of her group. She takes all kinds of precautions before she addresses or answers a man and has a limited role in “A Wonderful Noise.” Except for making another singer, Rose, jealous by the way men attend to her, Judy, the younger Jewish sister, seems to have little to do in this musical. Especially after Rose likes David enough to let him court her without telling him she’s Italian.

Acting, especially by Del Vecchio and Kiliany, is on the mark. No one is able to take a leadership role and give “A Wonderful Noise” some heft, Chris Monaco and Laura Barron are excellent as the central couple, but their conflict never comes to a point that you want to take sides with one or the other. You always have the hope is the pair will reunite, but that hope can’t become ardent because it’s so clear in this sweet musical, all will end up honky-dory. Hollinger and Lemkuhl don’t seem to have the stomach for any other kind of resolution.

The woman who steals the show the most is Jaclyn Siegel, as a quirky hotel reception clerk. Siegel lights up numbers more than her castmates do. You like it when a scene calls for her to appear. It means some sparks will fly. This desk clerk may be the Midwesterner in the group, but she has sass. Siegel comes on, and Ann Sheridan is in the room instead of the soppy women in Mae’s quartet.

Matthew Moorhead shows good timing in scenes in which his character, Ned, is supposed to be dense and is equally deft in scenes in which Ned just chooses to ignore a question or commitment of any kind. You see Moorhead acting, but you enjoy his deadpan nonetheless.

Michael Kiliany and Rachel Del Vecchio are the couple with best chance to hold an audience’s attention, and not because of the mistaken identity angle, but because Kiliany and DelVecchio establish a warmth between their characters, a bond you don’t want to see end on account of one being Jewish and the other being Catholic. If any scene come close to providing some atmosphere in this production, it’s the one in which Rose agrees to come to David’s room to light a Hanukkah menorah (which in a lame joke, she refers to as a ‘manure’).

Kyle Fennie is fun in all of his role, but none of them can add pepper to Hollinger and Lemkuhl’s bland goulash. Jaclyn Siegel does manage to infuse this lump with energy when she’s passing on advice, resisting Cullen’s character’s advances, but responding to Ned’s.

Two bits that have the most potential, the women trying to sneak into the men’s barbershop contest, and the results of the competition itself, play almost as afterthoughts.

As I said, I wasn’t bored, but I was never impressed, moved, tickled, excited, delighted, or taken in any way with this musical.

James F. Pyne did nice work creating a set that can pass for a hotel room, hotel lobby, or railroad car (speaking of which, I enjoyed the list of stations stops that dominated the lyrics of the opening number, “End of the Line”). Rosemarie McKelvey’s costumes were, in some ways, the most fun A WONDERFUL NOISE has to offer. Sarah Sanford’s dances provided some pep, especially when Cullen and Moorhead go into their quick step. Read Neals Paper >>>
[Vasey Hall, Villanova University, 800 E. Lancaster Avenue, Villanova, PA]February 9-21, 2016; villanovatheatre.org.

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