Desperately seeking ideas for a new musical, a roster of about fifty-five producers have come up with the idea of the 1985 Madonna screwball comedy movie Desperately Seeking Susan and thrown it on the stage with Blondie’s back catalogue.
I mean, how many plumbers does it take to fix a toilet, or how many blind men to tune a piano? The “book and concept” by Peter Michael Marino is ponderously faithful to the screenplay in which a bored New Jersey housewife, Roberta Glass, sensing a world elsewhere in the newspaper small ads, gets a bump on the head and a delusion that she has become the person whose life she envies, Susan, a punkish blonde material girl with attitude.
Angus Jackson’s production takes the wise precaution of turning the sound up so loud that it’s impossible a) to hear the lyrics or b) to know, when you do catch a phrase or two, whether they fit whatever is passing itself off as a dramatic situation.
The only way to enjoy the show is to submit to the songs, which makes for a totally passive experience. It’s some time since I put my Blondie on the turntable, but there are two numbers that are exceptional – “Atomic” and “Heart of Glass” – and I was very glad to hear them again. Heavy on base, pulsating with sexiness and full of good harmonic progressions, these songs bring back an era even if they don’t make a musical.
The rest of the score is just so-so to mediocre, though Debbie Harry’s new song “Moment of Truth,” written with Chris Stein, has the unexpected quality of indicating the kind of show she might have written if she’d sat down and started from scratch: it actually manages to express the four main characters’ separate situations with poignancy and concision.
Kelly Price and Emma Williams belt out their songs with balls and dedication, but it is impossible to differentiate between them, really, apart from in their hairstyles. Perhaps that’s the point. Roberta’s Jacuzzi-selling husband is fleshed out, just about, by Jonathan Wrather and Alec Newman is Dez the boyfriend chasing the surrogate Susan through her adventures as a prostitute, prisoner and magician’s assistant.
There are some feisty dance numbers choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, but nothing to get too over-excited about, and Tim Hatley has designed sets and costumes that suggest the market aimed at by the show is not one for musical theatre but the retro-punk concert-going crowd. It’s the very sense of calculation in this that gives the game away: the show’s got no soul.