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Trip of Love

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Trip of Love
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Walk into Stage 42 (formerly the Little Shubert) for Trip of Love, and you're immediately plunged into its 1960s countercultural setting. The walls, like the show curtain, drip with a woozy blue accented with the haphazard multicolor swirls so associated with psychedelic recreation. You're in for crazy times, craaazy, the show seems to be moaning at you. So sit back, man, and let the ride enjoy you.

That nothing happens in the ensuing two hours to live up to either these visuals or the show's title is essentially missing the point. James Walski, who created, directed, and choreographed, seems to have wanted to create his own version of Movin' Out, the Twyla Tharp 2002 Broadway extravaganza that used Billy Joel songs and nonstop electric movement to embody and explore young-adult malaise in the Vietnam era. So he's combined more than two dozen of the 1960s' biggest music hits into one show and linked them together by dance.

I was no enormous fan of Movin' Out, but Tharp is a master choreographic storyteller who made an earnest attempt to mine and magnify emotions that mattered. Walski doesn't even bother. His biggest set pieces conspicuously avoid feeling altogether: "Wipe Out," for example, is a frantic surf session and beach party (complete with the oh-so-original joke of a girl wearing a shark fin hat), and "These Boots Are for Walkin'" and the hilariously faux-tribal "Let There Be Drums" are centered on auditioning for and performing on an insipid American Bandstand knockoff called Dance-a-Go-Go. Because what else would it be called?

Oh, there's sort of a nominal plot, I suppose, about a girl the Playbill calls Caroline passing out onstage and dreaming of three guy friends before, during, and after the looming war in Asia (eerily, almost exactly Tharp's tale). But there are no characters, really. Caroline's guy, Adam, has a guitar and sings "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" before proposing to Caroline against "Moon River"; George is a rebel who rides a scooter while crooning "It's Not Unusual" and "The Girl from Ipanema," and crumples up his draft notice outside the recruiting station; and Peter's a fetishist who sleeps around during "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" and slathers his more-than-half-naked girlfriend with fluorescent body paint during "Venus." Or something.

Probably we're not supposed to care about or even discuss specifics like these, or other oddities like why the male performers so infrequently wear shirts. And if this were an impeccably crafted spectacle, perhaps I'd overlook them. But the dancing, though frequent, is less than inspired: empty athleticism that impresses at most on the surface, and then only through relentlessness; dancing like this, with nothing behind it, isn't much more exciting than standing still. The 12-member ensemble that does the bulk of the hoofing is charisma-averse, getting through the zillions of steps but going no further.

The leads, though talented, aren't much more distinguished. The Caroline, Kelly Felthous, has an appealing amiability she brings to bear on songs like "Where the Boys Are" and "Downtown," though her presence is a bit vapid. Dionne Figgins, as the iron-willed would-be TV superstar, and Laurie Wells, as an ephemeral spirit of romance with a smoky-creamy belt, are more immediately engrossing but also more underused. As Adam and Peter respectively, Austin Miller and Joey Calveri seem either dazed or embarrassed by their one-note good guy and bad guy roles, and David Elder projects none of the suave cool theoretically George requires. (At the performance I attended, Elder also got noticeably out of breath doing the gratuitous backflips in "I Saw Her Standing There"—never a good sign.)

At least the show is a technical success, with Martyn Axe's band rocking and loud; the sets (which Walski designed with Robin Wagner), plentiful live-in-living-color costumes (Gregg Barnes), and lights (Tamotsu Harada) a feast; and the vibrant animated projections (Daniel Brodie) sweeping along the non-action at a well-greased clip. But when you care more about how the sets move than the people moving in front of them, something is amiss.

Calorie-free fluff is one of the hardest theatrical genres to ace because there's nothing to hide behind, and Walski hasn't polished his own content-free lark to a sufficiently blinding sheen. Trip of Love premiered in 2008 in Osaka, where all this might have seemed fresher or less derivative than it does in the United States in 2015. But given this country's unique history with the Vietnam War and illicit drug use, shows like this one that go barely halfway with both just don't cut it.

Trip of Love
Stage 42, 422 West 42nd Street
Tickets and current performance schedule: Telecharge

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