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at The New York Musical Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 6, 2016

There was a bit of controversy surrounding Karen Bishko and Nat Bennett's Single at NYMF this year: It canceled a performance and was "downgraded" to part of the Festival's "Beta" program, which presents shows more as script-in-hand staged readings than fully realized productions. Based on what I saw at Thursday's performance, this choice is understandable—but it shouldn't stand in the way of the development of a potentially promising piece.

In the late 1990s, Leah Levine (Rachel Stern) was a green-haired teen music star whose career nosedived after she acquired a crippling stage fright; now, in her mid 30s and a dragon-lady divorce lawyer, she's trying to get back on track (if not on the charts). While dodging various dodgy men (all played by Chris Gleim), ranging from a cheating pilot ex-boyfriend to a closet psychopath to a good guy who falls prey to bad luck, she's working with her secretary, Jessica (Jenna Pastuszek), to regain her confidence and convince herself to take the stage again. Her guide on this quest is Gabriel (Ari Brand), who was himself a multi-platinum recording artist who can no longer write with the passion he needs to succeed. Professionally, he and Leah could not be more perfect for each other, right?

It's perilously slight stuff—nothing happens that you can't predict long in advance—and the book, which Bennett wrote with Bishko, only tangentially relates to many of Bishko's songs. She admits, in a program note, that they were written to express her own relationship difficulties, rather than Karen's, and they feel like it. But most of them, from Leah's long-ago hit "Voices" to Gabriel's world-changing "Cherry Blossoms" and the anguished "Five Foot Small" to the social-media stalking "Too Much Information" and the self-actualization finale, "Gonna Be," are darn good rock-pop. They don't always scan or rhyme properly, but they do jolt and in some cases even thrill with their rawness.

So, for that matter, do Stern, who's so vibrant and strong but brittle (and with a killer voice), and plays Leah with a captivating depressed energy. Brand, too, makes a compellingly brooding and broken Gabriel, and Pastuszek is wonderfully sensitive as a pained Jessica. (Gleim and Stephanie Martignetti, who plays all the other women in Leah's life, are fine but not a great deal more.) And, though it may be the result of circumstance, the rock-band-mindscape production aesthetic, which imprisons Leah within a purgatory of her own deepest passions, makes sense. (No director is billed, but "theatrical consultant" Thomas Caruso and "music consultant" Evan Jay Newman, who also conducts, are presumably responsible for it.)

Single requires a lot of work. In addition to everything else, few of the subplots resolve themselves in a satisfying way, Leah is the only sharply defined character, and the reprise-choked second act is thoroughly bereft of focus. But what's here is already good enough to make you want to see—and especially hear—where Leah will take herself next.

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