The set up:
Italians portrayed as open-shirted, oversized crucifix-wearing Mafioso gangsters and Snooki pre-makeover lookalikes. Germans depicted as moody sadists replete with lederhosen and S&M get ups. Mexicans represented as masked bandits in Zorro costumes and long flowing embroidered dresses flung about to reveal legs and emotions. Women sex crazed for one reason or another and men eager to take advantage. Lonely nerds that Cupid has forsaken.
Gage your reaction to the aforementioned and you’ll have a good idea how much enjoyment you’ll get from the musical that is lyricist-composer-librettist Gregg Coffin’s, Five Course Love.
If your feelings about the above descriptions fall somewhere between high dudgeon aimed at the offensive stereotypes and weary boredom due to the obvious, overly trod character depictions, you’d have good reason. Five Course Love is neither concerned with matters of ethnic sensitivity nor is it trying to break new ground in its discussion of true love and how to go about finding it. This is a plot reaching for the lowest hanging laugh it can find and squeezing it for all it’s worth in spoony octane fashion.
For 90 minutes the show plows through five different comedic love stories set in five different restaurants. A three-piece band (its members wearing chef’s hats) sit upstage behind the unimaginatively generic diner set, accompanying each scene’s three or four numbers. The gimmick of the show (and of course a show like this would have a gimmick) is that despite the 15 characters all looking for love, only three actors (Dylan Godwin, Mark Ivy and Chelsea Ryan McCurdy) play all the roles. Quick costume changes, a plethora of wigs, accents flying left and right and no doubt lots of back stage running around ensues.
We start off at Dean’s Old-Fashioned All-American Down-Home Bar-B-Que Texas Eats where a central casting nerdy single man meets his dating service arranged blind date. She’s hot and bothered for him until she realizes the dating service has made a mistake. It’s actually a promising start plot wise, this taking the piss out of the commercial love matching industry. It helps that the country music infused numbers that pepper the scene keep things toe tapping despite the overabundance of feigned sex with beer bottles gags.
But the following three scenarios take a left turn away from the smart lane of corporate satire and land at the dead end of cultural comedic pigeonholing. At Trattoria Pericolo, operatic musical numbers reveal a bouncy boobed, high heeled, skin tight dressed mob wife and her Good Fella’s looking bad boy lover getting caught having an affair. At Der Schlupfwinkel Speiseplatz, accompanied by Cabaret knock off musical numbers, a waiter, a vinyl clad dominatrix and another man are surprised when they realized they’re all entangled in a lurid sexual trio. In Ernesto’s Cantina, accompanied by, of course, Mexican folk/mariachi style music, a bandit and a hot headed waiter fight to win the love of a beautiful girl. As if you need the hint – the best kisser wins.
It isn’t until we reach the Star-Lite Diner that we can, without reservation, once again enjoy the ride. Here, in a terrifically humorous Grease-like musical spoof, a waitress tries, but fails to get the lug head greaser she loves to notice her. But her rejection isn’t the end of the show. In a wrap-'em-up-tight-and-right fashion, Coffin ties his whole premise into a neat little bow that to some extent apologizes and explains why he’s spent so much time highlighting unflattering impressions of the nationalities he includes. Love wins the day, the nerds triumph and any offense isn’t on him, so he wants us to believe.
Maybe you buy it and maybe you don’t. Maybe you forgive him or not. Maybe you weren’t bothered by it in the first place. But regardless of what I will assume are the many shades of reactions to the flamboyant narrative, there’s no question that the production itself is a winner.
Under the precise direction of Mitchell Greco, Godwin, Ivy and McCurdy take what is essentially a musical review and light it up with their balls-to-the-wall performances. Godwin, playing the chef/waiter in each scene offers up his fluid physicality and nose for timing to overcome his thin and at times cringe-worthy characters. Playing the lead lover in most every scene, Ivy shows off his superlative character range and signing chops to great success. Extra points must go to him for his ability to do all this while at times wearing nothing but latex undies and a harness. But it’s McCurdy who really steals the show. Boasting the strongest voice in the group and the ability to take ridiculous one dimensional female characters and turn them into something more substantial, McCurdy is the grounding that makes this show watchable. In my books, any actress who can stomach all the unnecessary phallic jokes she is obligated to perform and endure and make us forget the debasement, deserves a special award.
In addition to allowing his cast to go big and beyond with their roles, Greco must also be lauded for his dual role as choreographer. The plot is ridiculous, the characters conventions, but just watch them dance and damn it, you can’t help but smile. Whether it’s country, operatic or '50s rock and roll, Greco has the trio moving in perfect tonal harmony. Even when the music doesn’t factor in, Greco has a dance like methodology in his direction as can be witnessed in a glorious phone cord tangle bit that is by far one of the show’s funnier gags..
What to make of a show like this? To steal from Fiddler’s Tevye…on the one hand…it’s an offensive and/or boring flashcard trudge through national clichés. An uninspired look at love without anything new or insightful to tell us. On the other hand, this is a talented cast working their tushies off in a production that does everything possible to overcome the script’s shortcomings to great effect. It’s a fun night if you don’t think too hard.
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But then isn’t this always the conundrum with Stages? A company that will produce such timely and important shows such as My Mañana Comes, a show dealing with the abuses and challenges of immigrant labour, and then turn around and produce a flimsy and culturally unconcerned shows like Honky Tonk Angels, The Marvelous Wonderettes or in this case Five Course Love. It’s a pay to play model … one hard hitting show offset by a populist sure thing.
I get it. They have a business to run, we critics need to chill. And there’s a part of me that says, go ahead and program the iffy stuff if that means we get to see shows like Stupid Fucking Bird and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.
But I also know that Stages has recently created an Equity Diversity and Inclusion Task Force – a group that at this stage isn’t looking at programming but I’ll bet will have something to say about shows like this in future. Does that mean that Five Course Love and its ilk will be gone from Stages line up? Maybe. If so, great performances and direction aside, I can’t say I’ll be crying in my pasta fagioli/goulash/pozole soup over the outcome.
Five Course Love continues through April 16. 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $21 to $75.