Emma Knights Productions
Goodwood Institute Theatre
Until 24 Jun 2018

Review by John Wells

We are in classic rom-com territory here: buttoned-down, Republican greeting card writer Austin has come home early to find the love of his life on the job with someone else. Not the welcome home he was expecting. In another part of New York, the perky and free-spirited photographer Marcy is bemoaning her lonely life. She has dumped her deadbeat boyfriend and is looking into the abyss of singledom in the Big Apple. Austin and Marcy hate each other at their first meeting – what could possibly happen next?

This breezy, light, Off-Broadway musical by Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham is predictable and hokey – with some funny moments – as the worn sitcom tropes are paraded with the usual unsurprising results. It feels a bit like “Friends” (with a nod to “Pride and Prejudice”) set to music.

Producer and Musical Director Emma Knights has gathered together an impeccably talented cast, with a wonderful five-piece band, to deliver a sparkling version of this show.

There are some structural challenges for a director: the initial exposition and story-telling is too slow, resulting in an over-long first act, and the tone of the book falls uneasily between a jaunty Noo Yoik comedy and a heartfelt examination of romance. Director Meghan Doherty gives the first half of the show great pace and momentum, and has worked well with her capable cast to craft funny and emotionally believable relationships. Doherty succeeds in creating a gentle, warm and wry atmosphere. At times, the show feels a bit too low-key: more snappiness and a sharper, wisecrackin’ vibe would give better character definition and would bring out both the comedy and the heart-break.

The staging is simple – a sofa, a bar, a table and chairs – and the lighting is similarly basic. Such sparse staging would be enhanced by a more complex lighting design.

But this is a show about characters and relationships. And this production’s successes lie in the strong character work and immaculate singing from all the performers. Cailene Kilcoyne as Marcy is a wonderful combination of feisty self-doubt and unpredictable sassiness. She inhabits the character and gives Marcy depth and a touch of genuine gravity. Her agile, expressive and flawlessly tuneful voice is always delightful. Kilcoyne is a joy to watch. Josh Barkley (Austin) has a gorgeous, velvety voice, although his characterization of the straight-laced and bewildered would-be poet does not have the same precision and zing as Kilcoyne.
The leads are supported by Stefanie Rossi, as Diana, Marcy’s friend, and James Nicholson, as Austin’s extroverted brother Jeff. Rossi and Nicholson work together beautifully, as the friend-with-benefits couple, and Rossi’s girly bond with Kilcoyne is credible and funny. Rossi and Nicholson are consistently funny and engaging, with delightful singing voices. Rossi, too, finds some complexity in a thinly-written character. Charles Smith and Serena Martino-Williams play numerous roles as barkeeps, non-Chinese waiters and kindly strangers – a sort of New York chorus – with tuneful aplomb.

Knights’ work with her small band is impressive: the music is rousing and lively. The well-calibrated sound mix allows the wordiness of the lyrics and the performers’ excellent voices to dominate. The ridiculous “Actuary Song”, the smiling perviness of “We’re Just Friends” and the stirring closer “I Love You Because” are musical highlights.