Theatre Review: Romance/Romance Manages to Let Sparks Fly
Romance/Romance, with book and lyrics by Barry Harman and music by Keith Herrmann, was nominated for five Tonys in 1988 and ran for 297 performances, not a bad stretch. It’s less known these days because it came out in the same season as Into the Woods and Phantom of the Opera, which bulldozed anything with more of a niche audience.
So it’s a rare treat to see it staged so sensitively and adroitly, just in time for Valentine’s Day, by Red Herring Theatre. Red Herring has been staging some of the most interesting theatre in town since their revival, with productions of Krapp’s Last Tape, Assassins, and their original piece Thicker Than Water. This continues the streak of superlative productions. There are, however, some issues with the material itself not aging as well as one might like.
The play is a cynical trifle about what it look likes when love “flourishes” in a garden of lies and pretense. The first act, “The Little Comedy,” based on the short story by Arthur Schnitzler, is a costume drama set in decadent Vienna before the beginning of the 20th century. Nick Lingnofski is Alfred, a wealthy and bored gentleman tired of being loved for “[his] tailor or [his] ability to pick up the tab.” Kate Lingnofski is Josefine, a similarly bored and disillusioned lady of some means, who we see actively deciding to end it with her previous lover – she heads him off at the pass and calls the dance.
Alfred and Josefine meet when they’re both posing as people of lesser means, he a poet and she a seamstress. There’s some great humor in this act, and some potent, tart zingers, but more of it falls in the realm of corny borscht belt. Dan Burleson and Ashley Woodard play every other character in this act, but more importantly, they comment on the action through dance and pantomine. The music is very strong here, sometimes drifting to Sondheim parodies full of hard, glittering clusters and borderline-Gilbert & Sullivan wordplay, but even in those moments it’s clear and strong and lush.
This act, at heart, is about the performative aspects of love and, in a greater sense, of life. How much of what makes up our days is acting? And how much of that acting becomes who we are, to our friends, to our lovers, even to ourselves? This is gorgeously put across by Nick Lingnofski and Kate Lingnofski, sending multiple, at times contrasting, messages with gestures as small as a crook of an eyebrow or a roll of a shoulder, but not fearing the grandiose.
The first act is threaded with interstitials consisting of Woodard and Burleson waltzing, which feels like both a too-obvious elbow in the ribs – get it, Vienna? – and padding. It’s about a quarter too long, and the waltzing is a key component of that. The other prime suspect is the epistolary format – this device is intended to let the audience into the character’s heads and to comment on the uglier aspects of their behavior, but it’s not funny or illuminating enough for the amount of stage time it takes up.
The second act, “Summer Share,” based on a play by Jules Renard, finds the Lingnofskis as Monica and Sam, present-day long-time best friends, married to Lenny (Burleson) and Barb (Woodard), with the couples summering together in the Hamptons. To avoid giving away any plot complications, I will say only this is a story of will-they-or-won’t-they, a highbrow Three’s Company with a dash of When Harry Met Sally.
The second act works better than the first for a few reasons. It gives Woodard and Burleson things to do – it opens with those supporting characters singing and commenting on the protagonists’ actions, and they’re a proper Greek Chorus of Two throughout. Their voices and comedic timing are gorgeous, particularly Woodard’s masterful command of the hilarious sarcasm and the gripping sadness deep in the upper parts of her register, planted like time bombs. Shifting the viewpoint to the supporting characters takes us out of the heads of Monica and Sam and throws their actions and songs into sharper relief. The flow is also helped by the condensed time-frame and single location. The play doesn’t have to establish location every couple of songs, and the confinement turns the screws on the claustrophobia the two strain against while also heating up the sexual chemistry they simultaneously embrace and shirk.
The music works as a parody of other musicals, but often doesn’t linger or stand on its own. Herrmann is a natural colorist with a grasp of sticky harmony, but there’s a dearth of hooks in the flood of music. The words float on the sea of soft prettiness more than they feel supported by it. This makes the periodic howler stand out even more – there’s never a moment when the audience can’t see the end of a couplet coming before it’s sung, even when we cringe hoping we’re wrong about the rhyme that’s rushing toward us.
What is good about the music is the fascinating arrangements by Pam Welsh-Huggins, Musical Director and bandleader, with assistance from Spencer Channell and Tom Regouski. With just a five piece band, they conjure vast, lush soundscapes, aided by Dave Wallingford’s spot-on sound design and Isaiah Schmackers’ mixing.
John Dranschak’s direction is spot-on – he gives each act a natural and unforced feel while also giving the play as a whole a rhythm that glues everything together. His work is a big part of the reason this play feels shorter than it is.
As good as those technical elements are, a musical lives and dies by its actors and singers, and what made me glad I saw this – despite the aforementioned issues with the book and lyrics – are two of the finest musical performances I’ve ever seen. Nick Lingnofski and Kate Lingnofski have wowed me in earlier musicals, including Assassins, Merrily We Roll Along, and Falsettos, but it’s pure delight watching them play off one another for the entire show here. While it’s tempting to credit natural chemistry (they are married), I’ve seen other real couples who didn’t communicate passion or charm with half the precision and raw feeling they show here.
If you want to see how good acting can be in a musical, you owe it to yourself to see Romance/Romance.
Romance/Romance plays in Studio Two at the Riffe Center, 77 S High St. Showtimes are at 8:00pm Thursday-Saturday through February 14th, with a 2:00pm performance on Sunday February 8th and a 2:00pm performance on Saturday February 14th. For more info and tickets, go to RedHerring.info.