THEATER REVIEW: “33 1/3” @ Dobama by Roy Berko

Through Sun 7/14

Viewing a new theatrical production is always an intriguing experience. This is especially true if the offering is a musical and has not had many workshops or readings. It is in these venues that the material is tested and adjusted based on reviewer and audience reactions. 33 1/3 has been seen once, in a workshop in Canada, but the presentation by Cleveland’s “off-Broadway” theater, is the first full staging of the material.

In evaluating a production, a viewer of any musical has to take into consideration the material (story line, concept development, clarity and accomplishment of the author’s intent), the music and lyrics, as well as the staging, acting, musical presentation and technical effects. 33 1/3 with book, music and lyrics by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli is both a coming-of-age and coming-out tale.

As described in the press for the production, “It’s 1974 and Jules finds small-town existence stifling. He lives for listening to the latest records with his best friend Jill, but dreams of an exciting life in New York City. While Jules’ mother is in the hospital, his father is trying his best at home with his only son. Jules encounters Francis, an openly gay, Bowie-loving young man and romance begins to bloom as Jules slowly discovers and acknowledges his sexuality. Jules also encounters Victor, an angry young man from a troubled home who seeks relief by pounding on the drums in his basement. All four young people experience a tumultuous New Year’s Eve and younger Jules makes a decision that will change his life and all those around him.”

Jules’ decision is to go to New York, leaving Jill and Francis behind him. (No big plot reveal here. This action is obvious from the start.) The narrator of the story is Jules, as an adult, who is looking back and explaining how he got to the place in his life where he presently emotionally and physically resides.

The coming-out story has been told many, many times. There is nothing extremely unique in this version of the tale. There are no big surprises, no extremely jolting harassment or rejection events that make us want to cheer for Jules to succeed. In fact, even as his adult self tells the story, we don’t see what real success he has had, other than being out of the small town and not feeling penned up. That is progress, but not enough on which to build a compelling musical tale.

The characters are somewhat underdeveloped. Jules is a nice guy whom we like. Jill is a math savant who is also likeable. It’s pretty hard to figure out why Victor is even included other than to illustrate, as is the case of Jules and Jill, that people in quandary tend to find someplace to hide, in this case, in recordings and the worship of musicians. Francis is there as a lover and sexual guide for Jules and to provide a stereotyped gay flamboyant character.

It’s not a bad tale, just not a totally compelling one that keeps us on the edge of our seats waiting for what trauma or gleeful event is going to come up next. It doesn’t have the holding power of such coming-out tales as The Edge of Seventeen or the charm of Love Simon. As for the music, the songs tend to blend nicely into the story, as is the case with the newly developing genre of musical drama.

In general, the music is unmemorable. As I sit to write this, less than 12 hours after seeing the show, I can’t hum or even remember the sound of any of the songs, or the titles or lyrics. Since my mind tends to be a trap for musical show tunes, this lack of cognition is not a good sign. It might have helped if the titles of the songs were listed somewhere in the program. I often found that the songs were too wordy, too complex to grasp a major idea. These are not of the quality of the music found in such recent musical dramas as Dear Evan Hansen or Next to Normal. The lack of memorable music is a surprise as both Jay Turvey and Paul Portelli are award-winning authors. Sportelli is also the music director of Canada’s Shaw Festival.

As for the Dobama production, director Matthew Wright keeps the slow developing plot moving along. The cast puts out full effort. Jim Bray gives an impressive, nicely textured performance as both Older Jules, our guide to the story, and Jules’ overwhelmed father.

Handsome Benjamin Richardson-Piche is appealing as Jules, but often lacks the emotional depth to carry us on his journey. He — as do Hanna Shykind (Jill), Tyler Tanner (Francis) and Jay Lee (Victor) — performs rather than is. They are actors, playing roles not real people. All have pleasant, not Broadway-ready voices.

Holly Handman-Lopez has designed choreography that fits the era and the music. As with the character development, the cast has some difficulty in making the moves look natural rather than planned and rehearsed. The psychedelic electronic scenic effects visually set the correct moods.

Mathew Dolan’s musical direction was generally good, though there were times when the vocals were lost because of the over-zealous pounding of the drums. A musical’s sounds are there to back up the singers, not overpower them.

33 1/3 is a work in progress. Few, if any musicals, make it out of the gate as finished products. The American musical theater lore is filled with a number of shows that needed major or minor changes to help them become viable. The first performance of If/Then clocked in at over 4 hours, as was the case with The Addams Family. They both had to be heavily pared down. Fiddler on the Roof became a hit when a new director came in after weeks of frustrating rehearsals and asked what the show was about. When they decided it was about tradition and not about a milkman and his daughters, and inserted “Tradition” as the opening song, the show transformed from a march of audience members to the exits into one of the genre’s greatest shows. The same is true of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum when a pretty love song which was to be the opening number was pulled and “Comedy Tonight” inserted to set the right tone.

Jules could use an “I want” song that tells his hopes and dreams and sets his character. A “noise” song in one or both acts would “wake” up the audience and texture the musical sounds. A “next to the last scene” acting or musical number would get the audience ready for what should be a stronger ending that wraps up the story.  Hopefully the authors will take the feedback about the script and music and go back to the drawing board and make some needed changes.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: 33 1/3, in its world premiere at Dobama, is a work in progress. It will be interesting to see what, if any changes the authors make as the piece moves forward. You might want to see it here, so you can say “I saw it in its infancy.”

 33 1/3 runs through Sun 7/14.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

[Written by Roy Berko, member: Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, International Association of Theatre Critics]

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