Justin Doran ignites the stage as Mr. Marmalade.
Justin Doran ignites the stage as Mr. Marmalade.
Bruce Bennett

Mr. Marmalade Is Child's Play While Bright Lights, Big City Is A Musical Misstep

Noah Haidle's Mr. Marmalade, now running at Stages Repertory Theatre, is wonderfully odd and profoundly moving. The story centers on the childish fantasies of four-year-old Lucy, played with breathtaking charm by the grown-up Mikelle Johnson. Lucy is a strange, lonely child who's been left to fend for herself for too many hours of the day by her equally lonely mother.

When Lucy's alone, waiting for the baby­sitter or for her mother to show up, she dreams up another life, one that includes her well-dressed "friend" Mr. Marmalade (played by Justin Doran, who practically ignites the stage as the dream man). Sporting a dark suit and a clipped manner, Mr. Marmalade sits down for pretend coffee and suggests a pretend trip to Mexico, and Lucy is enthralled as she tries to be ever so grown-up with Mr. Marmalade. But during the course of the night, what starts out as an innocent game of make-believe devolves into a dangerous nightmare. It becomes evident that Mr. Marmalade has been shaped from the imagination of a child who's clearly been left in front of the television for too many hours of the day. Lucy's fantasy friend morphs from funny to sexy to fetishistic and violent as he snakes his way through the child's dark night.

There is some relief for the girl. When the babysitter's boyfriend shows up with his little brother in tow, Lucy gets to spend time with a real boy. Even better, the two have a lot in common: Five-year-old Larry (grown-up Erik Hellman), who's as messed up as Lucy, has been kept back in pre-school for stealing. But hovering in the recesses of her imagination is Mr. Marmalade, representing all that is wrong with our world today.


Mr. Marmalade

Mr. Marmalade

Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123.

Bright Lights, Big City

Theater LaB Houston, 1706Alamo, 713-868-7516.

Mr. Marmalade

Through June 1. $26-$36.

Bright Lights, Big City

Through June 14. $22-$27.

As directed by Alex Harvey, this strange tale somehow makes perfect sense. The boundaries between what is real and what is make-believe are in constant flux in Harvey's smart and disturbing production. Johnson moves with grace between Lucy's girlish fears and her spooky attempts at grown-up behavior. Doran's Mr. Marmalade is creepily seductive, while Philip Lehl as Bradley, Mr. Marmalade's assistant (don't we all dream of personal assistants?), creates weird balance in this fantasy world. And Hellman's Larry is the sweetest sad sack.

Haidle's script presents a world where children are too often left to fend for themselves, but as Lucy's story tells us, the power of imagination can go a long way toward saving a lonely soul.

Musical Misstep

In 1984, Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, a narrative about the bacchanalian, cocaine-snorting world of New York City in the early '80s, became a New York Times notable book. Told in the second person, the iconoclastic novel runs through a week in the life of an aspiring novelist who spins out of control while cruising the bar scene. Full of wickedness and humor, the book propelled the not-yet 30-year-old McInerney to literary success.

Fast-forward to 1999, when Paul Scott Goodman turned the youthful tale into a musical misstep if ever there was one. The mishmash of rock-inspired tunes crushes the ironic soul of McInerney's energetic book and turns the hedonistic, drug-soaked world of the novel into a ridiculously silly songfest — imagine a stage full of fresh-faced singers belting out "I wanna have sex tonight!" in perfect harmony, without irony, and you start to get the picture.

None of Goodman's failings stop the young, talented cast from trying to breathe some sort of life into this dreadful musical, which is making its regional premiere at Theater LaB Houston. They sing through the central character's bad week as they attempt to capture the zeitgeist of the era. On Sunday, Jamie is hung over. Monday, he's back at his lousy job. Tuesday, he's missing the wife who dumped him. He keeps going out to bars to make himself feel better and ends up feeling worse, and so on and so forth.

If talent were all that was needed here, director Jimmy Phillips would have it made — his cast has buckets of it. As Jamie, the angst-ridden poster boy for all that was wrong with the '80s, John Whalin sings his heart out. But never would anyone who was around New York at the time be able to see Whalin's earnest Jamie as the arty, pessimistic cokehead he's supposed to be. And though Susan Draper, who plays Jamie's dead mother, has an extraordinarily lovely voice (she will move you in spite of all the reservations you might have about the show), it's hard to see this young woman as the mother of this equally young man. Only Kregg Dailey, as Jamie's best friend Tad, comes off as the drug-loving bad boy these characters are supposed to be.

Bad as the early '80s were, they hardly deserve the beating this musical gives them.


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