By Bridgette M. Redman
Can geeks find love? Can two people connect in a bar? Can a bartender come up with unending varieties of cocktails?
These are questions Alan Gordon and Mark Sutton-Smith toss out in the premiere of their two-hour musical, “The Usual: A Musical Love Story.” It’s a musical written with the Williamston Theatre space and audience in mind. It targets 30-somethings and 40-somethings with plenty of clever lyrics that overtly play “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, dontchaknow dontchaknow?”
Compared to many of Williamston’s shows this season, this one is pretty light-hearted fare the entire time. While there are a few moments of seriousness, the majority of the scenes are designed purely for entertainment and laughter with little but a lingering smile to take with you from the theater.
The first half sees Kip (Joseph Zettelmaier) getting to know Valerie (Emily Sutton-Smith) under the watchful eye of Sam, the bartender (Leslie Hull). Things progress the way you might expect. The bartender has wisdom to dispense, the two “friends” who agree not to hit on each other become increasingly attracted to each other, and everything seems to get in the way of them ever exiting the friend zone.
Hull’s role is given the most rollicking parts and she is a delight to watch. She swings easily from being the sage server of drinks to the pink-bewigged porn star to the pixelated Valkyrie. She fully commits to each role and has a delightful voice that is up to each character change. Her expressions behind the bar show she is constantly in the scene, a not-so-silent witness to the bumbling of the relationship-impaired.
Sutton-Smith and Zettelmaier are strongest as actors and weakest when required to sing. The music strains their comfort range, especially given the great number of solos and duets they have. In crucial musical moments, they back off rather than hit the notes with the full confidence and emotion demanded.
They do have a very comfortable chemistry with each other and it is easy to root for them. Sutton-Smith is especially delightful in the second act when she takes on her demons as only a child of the 1980s could do – armed with floppy disks, Mountain Dew, Doritos and a video game avatar with that oh-so-distinctive walk. Her energy and self-realization in that scene is both hilarious and touching. It is the Valerie the Valkyrie number that makes the entire evening worthwhile. It is that scene which breaks the mold and takes this musical to something different from the standard fare.
It is also in that scene that the full commitment of all the designers come together, with Daniel Walker transforming the bar into Valerie’s basement, Ryan Davies creating several lighting specials and Holly Iler designing multiple retro costumes that are as functional as they are funny. Lynn Lammers adds some unexpected props, and Dana Brazil’s choreography captures the exact look that the scene demands. Tony Caselli directs the number with no holds barred, and the pay-off is big.
Throughout the show, Music Director Jeff English and production assistants/dancing crew Brandon Piper and Carolyne Rex add their voices and stage talent to fill out numbers and create varied stage pictures. It immediately sets the tone that this musical is meant to be a romp. There will be a few love songs and moments of self-discovery and growth, but mostly the cast and crew has gathered to tickle your funny bone with this very adult story of romance and loneliness in the modern world.
‘The Usual: A Musical Love Story’
Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam St., Williamston. Thursday-Sunday through April 22; no performance April 8. $15-25. 517-655-7469. http://www.WilliamstonTheatre.org