Tuesday, July 09, 2019

A Bittersweet Mix: 'Darling Grenadine' Nicely Offers Something New at Marriott, but Not Quite Deliciously So -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Darling Grenadine
a world premiere musical
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru August 18

Especially in being a new musical that the venerated Marriott Theater is presenting to its large, loyal subscriber base--which presumably includes many fans of the classics that are in the theater's stock in trade--Darling Grenadine is good

The premise is good, the book, music and lyrics all written by Daniel Zaitchik are good and the performers are good.

It’s certainly an estimable effort all the way around. From Marriott lead artistic director Aaron Thielen opting to schedule and direct this piece, to the excellent and likable leads—Heath Saunders and Katherine Thomas—to a number of fine, wonderfully-delivered songs, such as "Swell," "Party Hat," "No Good for Me," "Grenadine" and "Paradise."

There's even an ingenious depiction of a labrador, with Phillip Huber doing some delightful dog puppetry.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
But whatever it is that tangibly—and probably even more so, intangibly—takes a musical from good to great, IMHO Darling Grenadine doesn’t, in full, achieve that elevation.

Essentially we have a Manhattan love story, with Saunders’ Harry a hip composer who has struck it rich with a commercial jingle, yet a guy who can be considered underachieving—in part due to being an alcoholic. 

Smitten by Louise (Thomas), an ensemble member and lead actress understudy in a Broadway musical, Harry hits on her at the Stage Door, successfully. 

They start dating, but despite a loving brother named Paul (Nick Cosgrove) and a devoted dog with the same name, Harry’s addiction begins to become a problem. 

Rounding out the cast are Allison Sill and Brandon Springman, who rotate through various roles, while trumpeter Mike Nappi often appears at the fringes of the in-the-round stage. 

In terms of the small cast size and lack of big production numbers or much choreography, this is a more intimate musical than Marriott typically stages. 

This isn’t really a detriment, and there isn’t much I will cite as being “wrong” about Darling Grenadine.

As stated above, it's good, but it just didn’t wow me on par with many better musicals, even among similar chamber pieces. 

Just to mention it, I was reminded of They’re Playing Our Song, The Last Five Years and Marry Me A Little, the latter a show featuring Stephen Sondheim outtakes that—in a 2017 Chicago production by Porchlight Theatre—happened to star Katherine Thomas’ sister Bethany Thomas. 

With some of Darling Grenadine’s songs catching my ear considerably more than others, it dawned on me that I could theoretically like this show a good bit more with repeated viewings or the benefit of a cast recording. 

But that’s a hurdle new musicals are required to clear, and at which Zaitchik’s modern score proves
less adroit than some. 

While I applaud Marriott serving this new work to subscribers and a la carte patrons--and despite some puzzling small video graphics, scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec helps Thielen make it fit well into square auditorium--it’s also possible it would come across stronger in a smaller, more traditional or perhaps cabaret-type theater. 

Although the show has been workshopped and developed elsewhere, this production constitutes a world premiere, and even with the imperfections, its strengths warrant that Darling Grenadine find its way to stages around the country and world, perhaps with some additional refining. 

So despite a somewhat middling review, I’m not writing it off, dissuading you from checking it out or am disinterested in ever seeing it again. Not only is Darling Grenadine good, it's quite admirable.

But at this point, it’s just not great.

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