By Ryan Pfeffer
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I must confess, I have never been a big fan of Broadway tunesmith Charles Strouse. Not that he needs my approval. The prolific composer has been banging out hits since his very first musical, Bye Bye Birdie, grabbed a Tony in 1960. After that, Strouse went on a tear with Golden Boy, Applause, Annie,more Tonys and Tony nominations, and a passel of Emmys and Grammys. But Strouse has played it too safe over the years. His scores are always well-crafted but -- to my mind, at least -- nearly devoid of courage. Not so with Strouse's latest, Real Men, now in its world premiere at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. This what-the-hell, swing-for-the-fences experiment is bold, flawed, and sporadically terrific, easily one of the most unusual productions recently presented in South Florida, which has long suffered under the tyranny of conventionalism -- even the region's claim to fame, the Pulitzer winning Anna in the Tropics, is a stylistic throwback to the mid-20th Century. Strouse gets my wholehearted approval for the quality of his craft and his derring-do. With his reputation, you just know that Real Men will get smacked for not being Annie.
Real Men is musical theater, but it is not a musical. Instead, it is a plotless revue that strings together a series of songs (Strouse also wrote the lyrics) about middle-aged men struggling with life crises, usually having to do with women. The show is a musical equivalent to City Theatre's Summer Shorts, brief stories that are poignant, funny, insightful, and banal by turns. The music ranges widely from razzle-dazzle show tunes to minor key dissonances and radical harmonies to a brief, timid foray into hip-hop. Some songs seem to leap right out of a Fred Astaire musical; others seem closer to Schubert or Kurt Weill or operatic recitative. Strouse also fiddles with theatrical conventions -- he puts the final number after the curtain call.
The unusual turn in this septuagenarian's long career is really a return to his roots. A graduate of the Eastman School of Music and a student of Aaron Copland, Strouse draws on his classical training (he has also penned a number of orchestral, operatic, and chamber works). The classical elements are so pervasive, this work might best be considered a chamber piece, with the first and foremost instrument in this exploration of male angst a cello -- rich, deep, and plaintive. Certainly the work's rejection of Broadway conventions will likely offend traditionalists. But this is largely a matter of context and expectation -- had Real Men premiered at Miami Light Project, it would have been properly regarded as a cross-genre experiment. But at Coconut Grove Playhouse, the show will have to swim upstream against the theater's tradition and the expectations of its audience.
The show is graced by superior production. Director Jeffrey B. Moss applies the stylistic conventions of Nouveaux Cirque in an elegantly simple, visually striking staging. Moss employs an androgynous, largely silent character, a sort of Chinese prop man, played by the gifted actor/dancer M. Sappington, whose brief, lithe appearances add restrained, artful touches of choreographic commentary. Many a scene would make a stunning photograph. One number reveals a family man shaving in his bathroom, reminiscing about a long-ago romance with a girl in a blue dress. Moss makes sure the man uses a blue washcloth, clutching it like a last remnant of a memory. In another, three medical patients chat and joke while waiting for x-ray results; at the song's boisterous finale, a serious medical assistant suddenly appears, motioning one of them aside for some bad news in silent, menacing counterpoint. James Noone's starkly simple set design uses quickly shifting curtains and scrims that sculpt the stage space into a series of geometric patterns and shapes, beautifully abetted by Ellis Tillman's painterly, abstract lighting design that tracks Strouse's music, from garish streaks of carnival magentas and yellows to lonely wisps of icy blue.
Best of all, though, is the cast, an outstanding trio of actor/singers, Jordan Bennett, David Brummel, and Michael Rupert, whose masterful singing talents are on fine display. Brummel, who last appeared at the Playhouse in Romeo & Bernadette, makes the most of his comedic gifts in "Things," a witty number about a man whose frustration with clutter literally drives him crazy. He's also adept at rueful regret -- in another number, he plays a divorced dad looking on at his daughter's wedding as she is given away by his replacement, her stepfather. Rupert is particularly effective with dramatic songs. In one vivid vignette, he plays a survivor of a boating accident haunted by an unexpected moral lapse. In another, he's a charmingly awkward new father singing words of advice in a lullaby to his newborn son. Bennett, who rocked the Playhouse some seasons back in Boulevard of Broken Dreams, does so again in the show's most powerful number, an aria about a blue-collar father worried that his son won't escape their humdrum life.
Real Men is not without basic but fixable flaws. The opening is weak, several numbers flop, Sappington's talents are underutilized, and the show cries out for more conceptual framing. Regardless, Real Men is an intriguing theatrical event that expands the boundaries of musical theater. It's also a can't-miss event for musical-theater buffs. Any new show by Strouse merits attention. You can catch that 40,069th revival of Annie another time.