One of the most exciting qualities of any Festival is the joy (and horror) of not knowing what you are going to experience. There is always the hope that you will see the next “Next to Normal” or “Altar Boys,” but you also know that you might be in for one of those shows that looked promising but just doesn’t work. Most are somewhere in-between and my Festival adventure started with just such a work, the kind of mixed results that make the New York Musical Theatre Festival so interesting and exciting.
“Julian Po” is a musical about a guy who says he wants to kill himself. Yes, a musical predicated on a suicide. As a teenager who took the train into Philadelphia to see musicals in try-outs on their way to Broadway, I saw one of the most famous flops of all-time, “Kelly,” a show based on the true story of a man who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge three times and survived (although the show did not). So the current show is hardly untested territory.
But “Julian Po” attempts to raise the stakes to the level of allegory. The title character mysteriously arrives in a middle-America town after waiting at a near-by train stop that, not surprisingly, we learn does not exist. There he encounters seven stereotypical characters (dare we say “archetypes”) leading unfulfilled lives. Po’s presence and proposed course of action causes each to recognize his or her deep-seated longings for life and, for several, their determination to pursue those desires. In the process, Julian develops feelings for these people that cause him to question his intended self-destruction. When the town-folk discover his wavering commitment, they panic. After all, his suicide would give the town an identity and their secret longings meaning – they would have a reason to purse their desires rather than exis in a town that effectively is a form of living death.
Pretty weighty stuff for a musical! But “Julian Po” is based on a 1997 film of the same name starring Christian Slater that, in turn, was based of a 1982 Czechoslovakian film titled “Death of Mr. Goluza.” This incarnation is anything but weighty. The show is advertised as a dark comedy, and while the basic premise is certainly the stuff of dark humor, this musical is neither dark nor very funny. Instead, we see a fairly typical book musical in which a central character provokes self-recognition among a group of small-town “anybodies”: a drunken barber and his sexually frustrated wife, a minister who has never honestly confronted his own beliefs, the town’s “big-wig” sheriff/mayor/doctor and his nymphomaniac wife, the closeted tailor, and a poor orphan girl looking for a family.
There are a few times that the audience is motivated to self-consciously chuckle at the absurdity of the situation. When Julian tells the mayor’s wife that her husband has given him his favorite gun to carry out his intended end, the wife responds, “How thoughtful.” Toward the end of the show, the barber’s wife, who has engaged in a torrid affair with Mr. Po in an effort to become pregnant because her drunken husband can’t perform, tells Julian “your dying is the best thing that ever happened to me.” As with most dark comedy, if the right tone is not set, what might provoke laughter can also appear to be overwrought, albeit absurd, melodrama. These tidbits of dark humor are over-shadowed by a script that treats the characters as typical, if exaggerated, small town hicks struggling with the limitations of their environment and background. That might have made for an interesting musical, but the creative team appears to want to have it both ways: traditional and edgy dark.
Julian Po has an endearing country-western score and, like its commercial brethren, the lyrics tend to address the emotional frustrations of each character. The music and lyrics never rise to satire or a perverse take on the exaggerated poignancy of country music. They are essentially classic musical theatre explications of situation and emotion with a bluegrass twang. These musical reveries could have provided a dark take on the story’s somewhat predictable events; instead, they merely amplify those events. Any discussion of the shows conclusion would require unnecessary spoilers, but suffice to note that the show’s lack of a consistent style makes any possibility for the ending unsatisfying.
For all the weaknesses, the show is frequently entertaining. Many of the country-western songs are melodious and engaging. The basic structure of the story maintains the audience’s interest. Broadway veteran Luba Mason is wonderfully overblown as the mayor’s sex-addicted wife and Sean Cullen carries off the blustery arrogance of the town’s chief-of-everything with aplomb. Corbin Reid gives an endearing performance as the “with-child want-a-be” and Jon Fletcher, as her frustrated husband with dreams of stardom, does well with a stereotypical role that lacks dimension. Chad Kimball (of Memphis fame) is saddled with the difficult task of playing the title character who, by definition, is ill-defined. Given those challenges, he carries the role admirably. The rest of the cast is less engaging, but their roles are also less developed. The back up band plays their instruments well, but when they become the background chorus, their singing is frequently weak and occasionally imprecise.