Theater

Theater Review: 'Darling Grenadine' a risky romantic comedy

Katherine Thomas and Heath Saunders in 'Darling Grenadine' at Marriott Theatre.
Katherine Thomas and Heath Saunders in 'Darling Grenadine' at Marriott Theatre.

Most people, at some point, have wished that their life were more like the movies. In the movies everyone is cleverer and more charming; flaws are just quirks, and problems are easily resolved in satisfying ways. But reality stubbornly refuses to conform to the neat lines that that certain fantasy world draws.

Darling Grenadine, a new musical making its Midwest premier at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, daringly explores the tension between fantasy and reality.

Darling Grenadine is the story of Harry (Heath Saunders), a young composer who lives, works and loves in a fanciful version of New York City that has been featured heavily in classic romcoms and the glossy movie musicals of yesteryear.

His NYC is populated by his actress love interest, Louise (Katherine Thomas), his bartender brother, Paul (Nick Cosgrove), and his beloved dog, also named Paul (a surprisingly lifelike marionette controlled by Phillip Huber).

However, under its whimsical veneer, reality is always waiting and no amount of witty banter, or fizzy chemistry can keep it at bay forever. Ultimately, Darling Grenadine is a 21st century romantic comedy that is occasionally light on both in the service of boldly exploring the complicated nature of real adult relationships where a happily ever after is hardly a guarantee.

Singer/Songwriter Daniel Zaitchik takes on the herculean task of serving as not just composer and lyricist of the show’s fifteen original songs, but he also wrote its book. The show's concept is clever and knowing as it tackles the friction between the way life is and the way we want it to be.

The characters, especially Harry and Paul (the human), expand upon recognizable tropes from stage and screen giving them depths that are often ignored. It is refreshing to see recognizable character types become full human beings with rich and complex internal lives. The contemporary score effortlessly combines bubbly up tempo songs like the effervescent opening number “Swell” with emotionally charged ballads like those that appear in Act II.

“New Year’s Eve” performed by Saunders and “Paradise” by Thomas are particularly affecting.

Director Aaron Thielen does a respectable job of bringing Zaitchik’s material to life, though not every scene’s staging lends itself to the challenge of Marriott Theatre’s theatre-in-the-round setup, and some of the show’s more emotionally poignant moments end up losing a little of their impact due to obstructed views.

The small, talented cast is ideal for the Marriott’s intimate atmosphere. As Harry, Heath Saunders is an infectiously charming millennial twist on the classic musical comedy leading man who is staring in a vintage Technicolor fantasy that just barely covers a reality that he desperately doesn’t want to acknowledge.

He has the captivating ability to express both layers of Harry’s character simultaneously. He renders his joy as something temporary and fragile and tempers even his darkest despairs with faint glimmers of hope.

His voice has a sweet, slightly smoky quality that lends itself beautifully to the charm songs, but also has the ability to take on a raw soulfulness when the music calls for it. Katherine Thomas as Louise, the up-and-coming actress, is delightful at first sight, her luminous presence makes it easy for the audience to believe her and Harry’s “meet cute.”

But as the show goes on she skillfully brings out the character’s less cinematic qualities. Louise is a woman whose quirk and confident exterior is threaded through with an insecurity that at times seems a bit underwritten but is more than made up for in Thomas’ performance. Her transcendent voice makes the already moving Act II song “Paradise” a can’t miss number. Nick Cosgrove’s Paul carries a large amount of the show’s pathos on his shoulders and believably grounds the narrative in reality.

While Saunders’ and Thomas’ roles get to indulge in occasional flights of fancy on stage, Cosgrove is tasked with the somewhat thankless job of portraying a character who must live firmly in the real world of consequences, which he does with exquisite depth and heart. While he doesn’t have as many opportunities to wow the audience in song as his costars, when he does get the chance, he is sensational.

Zaitchik’s fantasy New York is filled out by Brandon Springman as Man and Allison Sill as Woman. Springman and Sill gamely portray multiple characters each and act as two person ensemble. And I would be remiss to not commend Phillip Huber on his work with the lifelike marionette that portrays Harry’s beloved dog, Paul. Huber’s skillful manipulation of the puppet, allows the audience to see and believe the relationship between the dog and the human actors around him.

Creating a set that has the unenviable job of standing in for a location as iconic as New York City is not easy. Set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec attempts to do so by populating the stage with a minimal collection of versatile set pieces (a bar, a bed, a piano, etc.) placed strategically around the stage.

He is aided in transporting the audience to the show’s multiple locations by Jesse Klug’s careful and atmospheric lighting design. But it is Anthony Churchill’s media design that truly shines. Utilizing numerous suspended staggered screens surrounding the stage, Churchill renders interiors, skylines and landscapes as well as some less literal effects that do the dual job of communicating location while also underscoring the emotional weight of the scenes.

There is a moment in Act II that is, in a word, breathtaking. Theresa Ham’s contemporary costume design deserves special mention as the deceptively simple garments indicate not only the passage of time but also subtly suggest the characters’ frame of the mind and personal development throughout.

Darling Grenadine will not be for everyone. It is a risky show that demands that its audience be open to a story where maybe everything doesn’t turn out alright and that there is more to every story than we want to acknowledge. But those who are willing to be challenged will be rewarded with a complex, deeply human experience that they are unlikely to encounter anywhere else.

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