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I Sing! of Nothing New

Young love, familiar but pleasant, takes the stage at Theater LaB

The angsty twentysomethings who populate I Sing! are as youthfully narcissistic as they come. The young New Yorkers manage to fill up two hours of song and dance on the tiny stage at Theater LaB by singing about their own sorry love problems. Those include all the usual suspects: the dreaded question of sexual orientation, the icky feeling of loving your best friend's girl, the fellow who's too boneheaded to know a good thing when he's got it. Of course, everyone's heart breaks -- just a little bit -- at some point. But for all the characters' musical hand-wringing, the show by Sam Forman, Benjamin Salka and Eli Bolin (who all went to college together) says nothing original about the rocky road to love. And the 25 songs that tell the story of five ordinary lovers often come off as cloyingly sweet and sentimental. Still, the young cast at Theater LaB leaps and frolics about the stage with hardworking, earnest glee. And they uncover some fresh moments in this otherwise too-familiar landscape.

As Alan, the young Hebrew teacher who falls in love with Heidi (Beth Hempen), Josh Wright carries most of the show's comedic weight on his bony but talented shoulders. Tall and thin, the young actor beams with infectious joy every time he steps on stage. He all but stops the show with his unlikely solo "What Alan Likes." There's no reason why this ridiculous song should work. In it, Alan runs around by himself in the apartment he shares with Heidi and her boyfriend Nicky (Jason Howard) and declares his secret love for Heidi. It's as silly as they come. At one point, he pulls his shirt up over his head and wears it like hair, singing about how much he likes to wear his shirt on his head. But Wright so fully embraces every moment that we can't help but laugh at the absurdity of the song. And he sings in a clear, sweet voice that finds depth in some of the more melodramatic moments in Act II.

Hempen's Heidi is also appealing, even though there's nothing written into the character that should make her particularly likable. Heidi proudly sings about being a "daddy's girl," and she's in love with her shallow boyfriend, Nicky (Jason Howard), even though he's a bastard. It's when Heidi gets her heart broken that Hempen really shines. The young actress sings soulfully and her face fills up with rich and surprisingly moving emotion.

Angsty twentysomethings (left to right): Jason Howard, 
Sara Jo Dunstan, Doug Thompson, Josh Wright and 
Beth Hempen.
Courtesy of Theater LaB Houston
Angsty twentysomethings (left to right): Jason Howard, Sara Jo Dunstan, Doug Thompson, Josh Wright and Beth Hempen.

On the other side of town are Charlie (Doug Thompson) and Pepper (Sara Jo Dunstan). Charlie is Pepper's gay roommate, but he's in a bit of a pickle. He thinks he might be falling for Pepper. In the ironically titled "I'm Coming Out," he sings about his sexual confusion. Thompson gives a solid performance and manages to make Charlie's conundrum as heartfelt as such a problem could possibly be.

Less successful is Dunstan as Pepper, a barmaid who attracts Nicky's roving eye. Pepper is a wild, giggly thing who likes sexual games -- handcuffs and all. But Dunstan, who is sweet-faced and even a little bit klutzy as she moves about the stage, hardly comes off as the sexed-up hottie she's supposed to play. Even worse, Dunstan is often asked to strain her voice out of range. The casting seems unfair. Dunstan is full of good energy throughout the show and clearly has much to offer, just not in this particular role.

In fact, these young singers push their voices beyond their comfort range many times and it's hard to understand why musical director Mary Carol Warwick didn't ask them to pull back or even speak some of the lyrics. Instead, they often reach the breaking point, which does nothing for the already thin music.

Even with its flaws, I Sing! --directed and choreographed by Linda Phenix with more dancing than this show needs -- is an often-pleasant confection. And though the story trots dutifully over a well-worn path, it moves so lightly, it just might appeal to anyone wrapped up in the sweet pain of new love.

 
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