Richard Isen's new musical Chance is subtitled "A Musical Play About Love, Risk & Getting It Right," but it's hard to fathom what love has to do with it. Certainly it's about lonely people hungry for a connection, but if they're looking for love, they're looking in all the wrong places.
After a workshop production in New York in 2011, the show is being given its world premiere by New Musical Theater of San Francisco, a small company that until recently was called Not Quite Opera Productions, best known for its long-running show Absolutely San Francisco The small Alcove Theater in the heart of San Francisco's theater district is filled with folding chairs for the audience, the action taking place in a relatively cramped space all around the edges of the room.
Gregory (a mild-mannered Richard Hefner) is a wealthy, fifty-something business consultant who seemingly has no friends and rarely leaves his fancy apartment covered with old movie memorabilia. (We don't see the decor in Anthony Dunnigan's utilitarian set, just a few necessary pieces of furniture.)
The only person he has to talk to is a classy, imaginary drag queen who shows up mysteriously in his apartment one day and just doesn't go away, a grand dame wearing a glamorous glittery gown (costumes by Corrine H. DiTullio) and quoting old movies incessantly. This nameless apparition, called The Lady in the program, is played by "gender illusionist" Randy Roberts, who's also starring in his own show Randy Roberts Live! Tuesday nights in the same theater through July 23.
I'm not sure if we're supposed to wonder whether The Lady is supposed to be anything other than a figment of Gregory's imagination. When she quotes Bette Davis in All About Eve, Gregory asks, "Is that who you are?" Who? Bette Davis? The Ghost of Movies Past? The Lady's not much of a Jiminy Cricket, mostly advising Gregory to do what he's inclined to do anyway. But her wry commentary and zesty cabaret-style musical numbers make her the most compelling character onstage. Even if you have no idea what she's doing there or what her role in the plot is supposed to be, the last thing you want is for her to go away. (Except during the part where she's dispensing vague Eastern wisdom with a cringeworthy pan-Asian accent, that is.)
Gregory has the hots for a webcam boy and prostitute called Chance, but he doesn't have the nerve to contact him at all until The Lady goads him into it. Once that happens, things spiral awfully quickly. They meet, but Gregory can't let his guard down and is always uptight and standoffish with Chance, who insists that he's really into older guys and is really attracted to Gregory. Ken Lear gives Chance a charismatic intensity bordering on creepiness as he stares fixedly at Gregory with a hungry, longing look that's almost certainly a put-on.
Played by a tight onstage jazz trio led with cool assurance by pianist Tammy L. Hall, Isen's songs are generally pleasant, and the cast sings them smoothly and with conviction. A couple numbers are pretty bland, one of which ("The Way to Happiness") is reprised nonetheless, but others are solid and dynamic. The simple lyrics scan well but are ultimately inconsequential because they express the feelings of characters we haven't been given much reason to care about.
The scenes are separated by glib Oscar Wilde quotes recited by deadpan music director Hall, often accompanied by a rimshot. It's a cute device that distracts more than it adds to the show.
But distracts from what? The plot is thin and often confusing, especially at the end, but more importantly it's not clear why this story is being told at all. The upshot seems to be that Gregory needs to loosen up and take a chance on love, but taking a chance on Chance seems like a terrible idea. It would be nice to see everyone carve out some small slice of happiness with somebody else, but there's nothing nice about the connection between the shut-in and the hustler. It's just squalid and sad. If this is the best Gregory can do out in the world, he's better off alone after all.
Chance runs through July 28, 2013 at the Alcove Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit chancethemusical.com.
All photos by Jay Yamada.