Community buzz about this award-winning musical has been apparent from its fledgling outing at Don’t Tell Mama through NYMF. presentations and a summer run in Provincetown. It was apparently three-plus years in gestation when the first of these provided a springboard. Show mentor Sidney Myer and vocalist Karen Akers have both been performing songs from the piece. Most of us waited with baited breath for it to receive a full production here.
“Tonight’s story is of impossible love,” Trevor Copeland (Sam Bolen) begins, “the kind of love you kick away only to get more entangled than ever…” More specifically, it’s a tale of gay love – trade-offs and sacrifice.
“I’m happy to announce that just a few hours ago Arthur Brightman died (our audience gasps) – pause – and we’ll be reunited.” We’re in Heaven at a manifest memory of Greenwich Village nightclub The Never Get circa 1968, a gay bar necessarily masquerading as bottle club. The stage is bathed in haze (representing cigarette smoke) almost obscuring a well turned out band. (Jamie Roderick’s Lighting Design is terrific throughout.) Rows of white proscenium lights frame club signage.
Trevor is an expressive lounge singer, the kind of performer who would’ve been at home in Las Vegas. At the piano, a temporary substitute (Jeremy Cohen) sings, plays and enacts songwriter Arthur for purposes of celestial storytelling – the real man not having yet arrived. Trevor narrates their story, stepping into action.
The Village is filled with music – Café Wha, The Blue Angel, Bon Soir (with thanks to research featuring James Gavin’s Intimate Nights). Arthur, 21 years-old, low key and wry, seems to have no ambition other than to write and perform under the radar. Trevor, fresh, friendly, Midwest bred, is hungry for limelight. It’s kismet.
Jeremy Cohen, Sam Bolen
Arthur writes songs for Trevor. They debut an act in the backroom of a small boite… at midnight. Slowly reputation builds and with it, the writer’s insistence that his lyrics not be compromised with pronouns changed. “Now understand, there were gay performances then, very camp…but a ballad? In public? In earnest? Loving another man wasn’t earnest. It was affected. It was self aware. It was against the law.” (Trevor)
Let me warn you/In advance/Kiss him once/End the dance/Then you’d still have a chance/It’s too late for me…
“… one of these Peaceniks is going to knock my teeth out…” Trevor remarks. Despite a few disgruntled exits and a police raid, however, renown swells. Arthur finally admits his feelings “Why’d’ya Hafta Call It Love?”: Too many rules’ll kill the game/Not enough air’ll choke the flame… And the men move in together. Opinions differ on participating in the movement, but they’re happy…until scouted. Again, drawing his own personal line in the sand, Arthur refuses to change pronouns for a major record label. Still, he starts getting writing work outside the club. A lot of it. L.A. calls. Both their lives radically adjust.
Songs range from unblushing ballads – “Dance With Me” is a killer – to razzamatazz brat pack numbers, “I Prefer Sunshine,” to giddy, Liza-Minnelli-like tunes. Music Direction and Orchestration by Adam Podd is top notch, as is the able band.
Sam Bolen is grounded when serious; while “on,” he bounces, prances, twirls, and gracefully kicks through showy numbers with lighthearted style and skill. (Choreographer Andrew Palermo showcases him in keeping with the period’s somewhat schmaltzy performance approach.) The actor has a fine, well controlled voice. His Trevor, not as sympathetic as he might be at first, grows increasingly invested; besotted, confused, wounded, steadfast.
Jeremy Cohen (no relation) has us from the get-go. The actor plays well, sings well, and inhabits Arthur like second skin. Understated performance is utterly compelling. A silly song ostensibly written on the spot actually feels immediate. The character is empathetic despite his discomfiting decisions. Unexpected harshness stings. Stage presence seems effortless. A case of perfect casting.
We learn about the men’s lives in later years, but questions are raised. WAS the scenario as Trevor describes or has it gone somewhat rosy in retrospect? Will Arthur show up at The Never Get or concoct his own infinite memory?
Director Max Friedman who’s been with the project since early on, offers sophisticated awareness of both stage business and complex sentiment. At one shocking point, Trevor drops a microphone that resounds through the theater as if its landing breaks something less tangible. Friedman knows when to place him atop the piano as well as sit still. Integration of dialogue and music is seamless, timing adroit.
Jeremy Cohen, Sam Bolen
Mark Sonnenblick is a multifaceted talent. Midnight at The Never Get is beautifully constructed. Historical tangents enhance rather than interfere with knowledge of the protagonists and never slow momentum. The author’s insight into painful, restrictive atmosphere of an era long before his time reflects comprehension as well as compassion; articulation never strays from character. Respect for and admiration of American Songbook is evident.
Caveats: Notwithstanding “I served twenty years/In-sider Ider-ho…,” the first two songs could be more original. Impact of the ending, which is moving when it should be heartrending, is diminished by less than riveting acting and not giving the singer an emotional solo as I gather was the case in earlier incarnations. This might be reconsidered.
Scenic Design by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader is effectively minimal. Stage haze has neither accustomed smell nor unwelcome moisture.
Vanessa Leuck delivers just the right aesthetic with her Costumes. Love the shoes. Sound Design by Kevin Heard is not just clear but splendidly deferential.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: Jeremy Cohen, Sam Bolen
Midnight at The Never Get
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Mark Sonnenblick
Co-Conceived by Sam Bolen
Directed by Max Friedman
Music Directions and Orchestration- Adam Podd
Musicians- Josh Bailey, Nick Grinder, Brian Krock, David Neves, Robert Pawlings
Through November 4, 2018
The York Theater Company
619 Lexington Avenue- Enter on 54th Street
Next York Theater Mainstage Musical: December 4 – 30 Christmas in Hell.
Book, Music & Lyrics by Gary Apple. Directed by Bill Castellino.