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With 'Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical,' SCR Adds New Wrinkles to the Play it Originated 36 Years Ago

Updated: Apr 26

REVIEW: Playwright Craig Lucas and company have, for better or worse, wrought a different theatrical animal, seemingly missing key emotional dynamics.


Chris McCarrell, left, and Hannah Corneau make the most of the show’s lead roles of Peter and Rita despite the problematic nature of key character traits and dynamics. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory / Matt Gush
 

In the opening scene of “Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical,” we see a chance meeting, during a lively party, between Peter (Chris McCarrell) and Rita (Hannah Corneau). Peter is a co-worker of the party’s host; Rita, who lives down the hall, wanders over because, as she tells Peter, “I haven’t slept since I was 14.”


That sleepless condition is part of a rather gloomy outlook on life that informs much of the basis for the new show, now in its world premiere at South Coast Repertory. And as neither Peter nor Rita are much into the festivities, they wander off and begin the kind of intimate bonding that has romance stamped all over it.


It’s a love connection that will intertwine their fates. Early on, Peter gazes up at the windows of Rita’s apartment building, like Romeo beneath Juliet’s balcony, musing in song about “The Room Where She Doesn’t Sleep.” He repeats the lyric “the spell is cast,” not realizing his words will prove eerily prophetic.


In short order, the young couple has decided to marry. As in the original, non-musical Craig Lucas play that’s the basis for this show, the wedding is interrupted by an elderly stranger named Julius (Jonathan Gillard Daly) whose presence will cause a bizarrely metaphysical shift in reality that rocks to the core the lives of Peter, Rita and the aging interloper.


[SPOILER ALERT: For those unfamiliar with the 1988 play, which originated at SCR, or its 1992 film version, the spirits and bodies of Rita and Julius, through a seemingly innocuous kiss, switch places. The result: His spirit takes over her body and she becomes trapped in his decrepit frame.]


“Prelude the Musical” has no outsize theater vocals or large-scale, Broadway-style musical numbers, and that’s just as well, because the story and characters aren’t really designed for that kind of show.


No, this “Prelude” is essentially, and rightly, a chamber musical. And it’s solid at that, what with its three outstanding leads and nine ensemble members, five of whom also portray key supporting characters.


Ensemble members Caroline Pernick, Bella Hicks and DeAnne Stewart (from left) and Karen Ziemba (at right) join Corneau. Stewart also portrays Rita’s best pal Angie and Ziemba is double-cast as Rita’s mom. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory / Matt Gush
 

Lucas imbues the early scenes depicting Rita and Peter’s relationship with a dry, understated tone and an unmistakable sense of irony carefully preserved by director David Ivers. It makes sense that these two extremely guarded 20-somethings would be drawn together.


Yet, a crucial, vital aspect seems to have been drained away from this new version of “Prelude”: The stark, elemental contrast between Peter as loving, trusting and fairly confident and Rita as so phobic it’s a challenge simply to function on a daily basis.


It’s a lapse the musicalized “Prelude” is almost unable to surmount, along with an issue that runs in parallel: As the show moves from one number to the next, only a fraction of the 18 songs cause us to sit up, take notice of the otherworldly dilemma faced by the young couple, and find ourselves relating with them.


(It’s worth noting that the production’s opening was delayed by nearly a week due in part to McCarrell joining the cast following the previous lead actor’s departure from the show.)


The music (by Daniel Messé) and lyrics (by Sean Hartley and Messé) sit squarely within the framework of contemporary, 21st-century stage musicals, the pop- and rock-inspired songs communicating just enough theatricality to suit them to the craft of storytelling.


Alas, and with just a handful of notable exceptions, the bulk of the songs are rather generic, their ties to the plot and characters tentative at best – pleasant and enjoyable, yes; compelling, no.


One exception is the song “Cold Feet,” where Rita tries to convince Peter it’s OK if he decides to back out of the wedding. The strikingly intimate song is the first one of the evening to really let us in. Coming about one-third of the way into the show, it allows both characters, and especially Rita, to be vulnerable. Fittingly, Corneau knocks it out of the park.


The musical’s startling turning point occurs when the elderly Julius (Jonathan Gillard Daly) asks to kiss the bride (Corneau) for good luck. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory / Matt Gush
 

Ivers’s entrance for Julius, as he crashes the wedding, is inspired, Daly shuffling down the aisle and making his way onto the stage, asking permission to give the bride a good-luck kiss. While Peter and company detect nothing especially odd, we’re given a heads-up: After the kiss, the now-startled old man exclaims “It’s me!” to her groom, while the suddenly energized bride shouts, “I feel like dancing!”


Ivers has crafted a wholly apt mise-en-scène for such an offbeat, fantasy-tinged romance: The story drifts along like a cloud, its shadings, dreamlike (even while veering toward a nightmare), enhanced by fluid design work by Scott Davis (scenic), Yee Eun Nam (projections) and Marcus Doshi (lighting).


The ensemble members are solid and skillful all, their presence creating a much-needed visual filling out aided immensely by Julia Rhoads’s choreography. James Moye and Karen Ziemba double as part of the ensemble and as Rita’s parents, proving unabashedly exuberant in the plum roles. However out of left field the pair of characters might seem, their goofball personas – including a purposely wacky country hoedown-like song with dad Moye on banjo – serve to inject the show with comedic energy.


Ensemble members Karen Ziemba and James Moye are unabashedly exuberant in the plum comedic roles of Rita’s parents. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory / Matt Gush
 

Of all the double-cast ensemble members, Julie Garnyé packs the most impressive punch into her brief stage time as Julius’s daughter Leah, notably in the heartfelt solo “The Man He Used to Be.” On the flip side, characters like Peter’s and Rita’s co-workers, Taylor (Jimmie “J.J.” Jeter) and Angie (DeAnne Stewart), are the kind of pro forma “best friend” roles that come off as almost frustratingly incidental.


The music and vocals, in the hands of music director Wiley DeWeese, orchestrator Greg Pliska and Messé, are polished to a high gloss, and Messé’s score is boosted by conductor Alby Potts and a seven-piece orchestra on an elevated platform high above the stage.


Much to their credit, Corneau and McCarrell push through any glaring shortcomings in the Rita-Peter dynamic. Corneau stands out as, and deserves the label of, the production’s star, with precisely the right persona for her role and an aching, indie-rock vocal style which complements the musical content.


After being featured in most of the first dozen songs, Corneau has the tender yet soaring duet with McCarrell, “A New Life,” that exemplifies her work. In the earlier song “Beautiful,” she brilliantly channels the “new” Rita’s new-found, previously non-existent joie-de-vivre.


During the couple’s honeymoon, Peter (McCarrell) begins to realize Rita (Corneau) isn’t the same woman he fell in love with and married. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory / Matt Gush
 

McCarrell and Daly deliver some of their best work in the culminating scenes where Peter and his beloved Rita adjust to the jarring, possibly permanent reality of her being imprisoned in an elderly male physical body.


On the minus side, for the bulk of “Prelude the Musical,” we have to wonder why Peter doesn’t exhibit more alarm in realizing Rita is no longer the person he came to know and love. His song “Living With a Stranger” fails to express the angst anyone would feel if this happened to them, and you’d likewise expect Peter’s presumed frustration and growing desperation to erupt in the song “In the Movies,” which fails to deliver his mounting panic.


And so we have a credibility gap this version of “Prelude” doesn’t close until its final 20 minutes. Then, like magic, the plot strands begin to coalesce, converging in a resolution eminently more satisfying than most of the 100 or so minutes that precede it.

 

That positively thrilling tying up of loose ends is well worth waiting for, with incisive, purposeful dialogue, credible and compelling work from Corneau, McCarrell and Daly, and a trio of songs – “This Body,” “Not Me” and “Here We Are” – that deliver, in spades, the promise inherent in this project.


It’s possible we haven’t seen the last of revisions to “Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical,” which, after it closes in Orange County, is headed for a brief run on the stage of Milwaukee Repertory Theater, SCR’s co-development partner in bringing the new show to life.


Regardless, it’s instructive to note that, for better or worse, this isn’t your parents’ “Prelude.”


‘Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical’

Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes (includes intermission)

When: Through May 5

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: $34 to $112

Contact: 714-708-5500, scr.org


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