Deal! The Musical at the Ritz Theater

It’s a challenge for writers to get their own work produced; it gets even more complex to produce a new musical. Furthermore, if the new musical does not have a “name” – either one of the writers or recognized subject matter – the effort to mount a new show can be overwhelming. That’s one of the reasons why so few new musicals get produced, even though many new musicals are written every year.

To their credit, co-writers Tom Broadbent and Jerry Seifert put together a production team, headed up by producers Jim Foltz (Tyrol Hills Music) and Kurt Larsen that gathered the resources and absolutely top-notch talent, ironed out logistics and made it happen. I am impressed with that.  Their new show, Deal! The Musical opened at the Ritz Theater in Northeast last night and will run through May 6. Joshua James Campbell directs.

The story is set in small-town Minnesota during the 1950s and 1960s. A poor couple, Art (Jon Andrew Hegge) and Elsie (Laurie Flanigan-Hegge), struggle to raise their two teenaged daughters, Julie (Aly Westberg) and Audrey (Lizzie Schwarzrock). Julie wants to go to college, a notion her mother mocks, but their dad, with his own dream of a little farm, favors his “Angel,” perhaps because he has some hope that she will make it. There is no reason to believe that he ever will.

Time is passed by regular poker games with friends and family, a device that serves to unfold the story line and reveal how this ritual holds them together through life’s ordinary events and extraordinary trials. Oscar (David Roberts) drinks too much, which suits his floosy girlfriend, Millie (Kim Kivens), just fine. She drinks, we ultimately learn, to forget a tragic loss at a young age. Kivens is blessed with the most interesting character, which she plays with good humor and finesse. Pearl (Catherine Battocletti) is Elsie’s old friend and a recent widow. Max Wojtanowicz plays the awkward prom date who blossoms into a sensitive husband for Julie. The cast of characters makes for a colorful mix of personalities who clash now and then, but it never threatens to dismantle the game or their relationships.

The mother, Elsie is so out of touch with her own feelings that hard work substitutes for showing affection for her daughters. In her world just paying the bills constitutes a successful life, and it’s probably all you really deserve. Audrey bucks the family bias against Catholics and marries one – a conflict that is quickly dissipated by Elsie’s recorded voice telling Art, basically, to get over it. Nothing seems to faze her – good or bad – which works both ways. Of all the characters, Elsie certainly had the most potential to truly be a fully developed protagonist and drive a conflict from beginning to end. Had we experienced everyone else’s stories from her perspective, we would have had much more invested in her emotionally and the ending would have been enormously satisfying, rather than a tidy little wrap-up.

The idea for this show is brimming with potential for rich emotional content, all of which gets a nod now and then, but with eight characters telling their own stories and tackling their own demons, there is little time to develop a powerful narrative to which we feel connected, long for the same things that a protagonist wants, and are then rewarded in the end.

In this play, the stories of all eight characters intersect without any one of them going very far. All the characters get “a moment” to illuminate their perspectives in a ballad, which means there were lots of ballads. There were musical ideas that should be noted:  Clint’s Dancing in Love changed up the rhythm and was quite lovely, we were charmed by Schwarzrock’s My Catholic Boy, and Kim Kivens’ Lord’s Prayer was memorable, although the setup for a song that powerful was thin.

Some “wants” are not introduced until late in the play, some wants are not addressed adequately after that point, and some are resolved somewhat superficially. This may be the way life really is, but in two-plus hours it’s hard to get an audience to love the characters as much as they deserve.  

 NOTE: This is a great little happenin’ neighborhood. Make plans to enjoy one or more of the local establishments within a about a block of the theater before or after the show.

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