“Almost Perfect” is a rare thing: A bad show that makes it easy to tell where it went wrong.
Let us trace the trajectory of this new musical comedy, written by Doug Stewart (“Saturday’s Warrior”) with music by Merrill Jenson (“Legacy”).
The trouble is not in the production. The sets are high-schoolish, yes, but bad sets do not make a bad show. The live orchestra, conducted by Sean Jackson, sounds fine. Most of the singing voices are good enough. The performances are adequate.
Nor is the trouble with the direction, necessarily. James Arrington keeps the pace up as much as he can — a near-impossibility considering how many extraneous numbers bog down the show.
The trouble with “Almost Perfect” is in its initial concept: It doesn’t have one. There is no story here. It borrows heavily from “Guys and Dolls” and “The Music Man” specifically, but more to the point, it borrows from every major musical theater work of the past 65 years, including a “dream ballet” that serves no purpose other than establishing that the authors have seen “Oklahoma!” Nothing in it is original or new, and that goes for Jenson’s perfunctory Generic Musical score, too.
Set in 1941 in a watered-down version of the watered-down version of New York found in “Guys and Dolls,” the show focuses on Jack Riley (Jeff McLean), whom we are told is a con man. His new idea is to marry rich LaRue Canfield (Allison Hawks) and take over her father’s gun-manufacturing business. He will then install co-conspirator Eddy Schumacher (Kimball Wirig) as business manager, skim off the top, and make a fortune before the company knows what hit it.
Alas, immediately upon seeing Canfield employee Anna Caruso (Andrea Ingles), Jack falls in love. Somehow, he plans to woo Anna, not marry LaRue, and yet still get all the money. (He wants Eddy to marry LaRue instead, which means Eddy will have plenty of dough; I guess Jack expects him to share.)
The conflicts are all standard musical-theater fare, as are their resolutions. What’s stunning is how little effort is put into conveying them. For example, I knew LaRue and Eddy would wind up together — they’re both secondary characters, played mostly for laughs; that’s what happens to characters like that — I just assumed the show would have it make sense somehow. But no, LaRue randomly decides, not two minutes after screaming about her undying love for Jack, that she’s REALLY in love with Eddy.
Doug Stewart knew he had to get LaRue off Jack’s case so Jack would be free to marry Anna. All I can think is that Stewart couldn’t think of a way to make that happen logically, so he gave up trying. Explaining what occurs in this show is like explaining a dream: “So LaRue’s totally in love with Jack, but then she’s in love with Eddy instead” makes as much sense as, “So I’m in my house, but then it’s not my house anymore, it’s an IHOP.”
Jack’s a jerk, too, which is a hindrance. “Bad” guys who need to reform are one thing. Lying, conniving, manipulating, dishonest jackasses are something else. How is the audience expected to stay with the show when the lead character is so unlikable?
Another character, Claudio (Clay Elder), is in love with Anna, which could make for a love triangle — except that he’s given an unnecessary character twist that removes any possible suspense over whom Anna will choose.
I get the sense that everyone was doing the best with what they were given. Show up with bland dialogue, bland music and bland lyrics and yeah, you’re going to get a bland show.
The Daily Herald's headline for this review was: "'Almost Perfect' almost unwatchable." It was one of those rare times when I get to write the headline, and I was glad for the opportunity.
There must be opposition in all things, however, and this is the first letter I received regarding this review. It's from someone on the technical crew for the show; he didn't sign his name, but his e-mail address contained it:
In response to your article, "Almost Perfect almost Unwatchable", I have to say I am very disappointed. I don't understand how someone who sat and watched that show could have said some of the things found in your article. [Translation: "I don't understand how someone could have an opinion that is different from mine."]
For example, you wondered how La Rue turns from confessing her love to Jack to all of a sudden falling head over heals for Eddy. I agree, there is not much script support for it. That is why Actor's are a part of theatre. If you were watching the scene where Eddy and La Rue are singing to each other you would see how she was itching to get Eddy's attention through her wining. Eddy asks her if some guy like him were to ask some girl like her, would she be interested, through all kinds of sarcasm, both facial and vocal, she responds, maybe, but not me, not on your life. She wanted him. Eddy is the one that didn't believe she did. [If this supposed body language took place, it was subtle indeed, and it was followed by an hour of LaRue screaming about how she was in love with Jack, NOT Eddy. Forgive me for taking a character's loud, oft-repeated words to mean more than her subtle, imperceptible body language that existed only in one scene, if it existed at all.]
You also state that it is a mix up of a bunch of different shows. I say an amateur in theatre would believe that. Yes there are some songs that makes you think of a different show. I think that is genius on Merrill Jenson's part. This is a brand new show. It is a long show. In order to keep an audience it has to be catchy. One way of making it catchy is familiar music. [Another way is to write ORIGINAL music that's catchy. But that's probably harder.] The music is different enough to carry on its own theme, but in the back of your head you have pigments of other shows in your head. It is wonderful.
Also I don't see any similarity between this show and "Guys and Dolls". Not one musical number reminds me of that show. [I didn't say it was the music. It was the plot: Both shows take place in brightly colored versions of New York in a previous generation; both have outrageous blondes with thick accents; both have well-dressed con men/gangsters; both have a bad guy trying to go straight for the sake of a strait-laced woman, who doubts his motives and is skeptical that he'll actually turn good; and so on.] It may take place in New York, but a lot of shows do, and for a good reason...BROADWAY. [I don't even understand what this means. Broadway is in New York, and so therefore a lot of shows are SET in New York? That makes sense if the show is ABOUT Broadway. Otherwise, there is no correlation. Anyway, the fact that "Almost Perfect" is set in New York was not the basis for any of my criticisms.]
These are just a couple things that anyone with any experience in theatre who watched the show would have picked out. [Sigh. If watching 75 shows a year for the past five years for work doesn't give a person "any experience in theater," I don't know what does.] I find it hard to believe that you watched it. A bland story, a bland musical score makes for a bland show. This was far from bland. My suggestion to you: Learn more about theatre to be a theatrical critic, or find a new job. [Translation: "Find a job where you will always agree with me."]
Then we got this letter to the editor, from a UVSC professor (not of theater). He hand-delivered a copy to me, which takes more guts than, say, writing an anonymous e-mail. I'll give him that.
I attended the Thursday night, Nov. 7, performance of UVSC's production of the new musical "Almost Perfect" and found it most delightful and not at all "unwatchable." I enjoyed the cast, sets, music and the story. Critic Snider's review in the Provo Herald [Or "The Daily Herald," as we call it around here] on Friday was appalling and degrading as he called it a "bad show" and gives it a D+ rating. I found the production very enjoyable and was glad that I went. I hope others ignored the negative review and attended one of the fine performances. The acting was excellent and the story very interesting. Unlike Snider's comments of "nothing...original...generic musicial score", I found the music and singing delightful. Snider wastes the first half of his article blasting the supposed weaknesses and ends with "bland dialogue..,music..,and lyrics and bland show". [I'm not sure how it's a "waste" to spend time discussing a show's faults in a critical review, but OK.] He then spends several paragraphs [well, two, really]telling the story of the musical which made the "bland" story sound rather interesting. [Then I have failed in my description of it.] Frankly Mr. Snider I attended, perhaps, the same performance that you did and found the show and music delightful and enjoyable. (I don't know what Snider's credentials are but I suspect it is limited. I have attended performances, musicals, etc. for over 30 years. So I think my judgment may be just as good or better.) [Once again: "Snider disagreed with me; therefore, he must be wrong. There is no such thing as a difference of opinion." Also, let me point out again that no one has ever questioned my credentials when I have praised a show. The only time I don't know what I'm talking about is when I criticize; apparently, then, there is no such thing as bad theater.] My review would have been: 'a good performance and well worth attending'. [You've convinced us! You're hired!] Yes there may have been a few weaknesses, but not as bad as Mr. Snider's review.So there you have it. I'm sure I don't need to explain the absurdity of suggesting I only give "dirty" things good reviews and give "clean" things bad reviews. Plenty of R-rated films have gotten bad reviews, too, and lots of wholesome plays -- which in fact describes 90 percent of plays produced in Utah Valley -- have gotten good ones.
I noted that just below, following and on the same page of his awful review of the musical, he then did a favorable film review of the film "8-mile". Some story about a rap star which contained "profanity, strong sexuality and partial nudity". [Don't forget violence. There was some violence, too.] And for this piece of trash, [Some reviewer he'd be, passing judgment before he's even seen it!] which is "R" rated (and some of us have no desire to see) he gives it a B+ rating. [Apparently, if some of my readers have no desire to see something, I shouldn't give it a good review.] The "Almost Perfect" performance had none of this 'bad stuff' and you could comfortably take you child or grandchild to see and enjoy it. Mr. Snider's critique deserves a "D-" at best. I suggest that he go back to reviewing R rated movies and let the rest of us enjoy a good and tasteful performance.
I don't understand why people get so angry over a difference of opinion, and I probably never will.