A little Romance goes a long way

Published: December 31, 2007
A fine “Romance/Romance,” my friends, this is.

The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn has mounted this brace of 1988 one-act musicals. Each takes a sharp look at love, thanks to Barry Harman’s tart book and lyrics. Both are leavened through Keith Herrmann’s melody-laden music.

“The Little Comedy” takes place in 19th-century Vienna. Alfred is a wealthy man who’s tired of fortune-hunters, while Josephine is weary of rich bores. So they try slumming, he in a working man’s cap, she in a jaunty straw hat. As each pretends to be poor, they meet, and find great fun in being just plain folks.

Soon, though, the bloom is off the ruse. One-star meals and hotels can becoming trying. As a couple of other Viennese wondered in “The Sound of Music,” how can love survive? Harman solves it with an ending that’s neither sentimental nor overly cynical.

“Summer Share” vaults forward to Right Now in the Hamptons. Barb is married to Sam, and Lenny to Monica. But all four married too young, and now The Seven-Year Itch has turned into 13-Year Eczema for Sam and Monica, who were best friends before they married.

Will they or won’t they? Harman argues both sides fairly and honestly, all leading to a curtain line that’s one of musical theater’s best. In between, Herrmann provides some bouncy pop-rock.

How fitting that we first meet Matt Bogart when he’s in formal wear, for Alfred is one stuffed shirt. Yet when he decides “It’s Not Too Late” (one of the score’s best songs), Bogart’s loses the effete quality and does a breathtakingly easy jump over a divan. He makes Alfred loosen up nicely for the rest of the act.

His real-life wife, Jessica Bogart, has a face and instincts that seem more suited for a comic foil than a romantic lead. Still, she gives Josephine a winning grin that makes theatergoers almost cry out, “Good for you!” Her soprano trills thrill, too.

An audience’s admiration for them will more than double after intermission. Now that Matt Bogart no longer needs to play the gentleman, he turns out to be a handsome and rugged leading man with a voice to match. Jessica Bogart portrays the typical New York woman: Overwhelmed and frazzled from work, and even more confounded when she must face her love life head on.

Danette Holden and Mark Ledbetter aren’t much more than window dressing in the first act, though they waltz and polka well. (Each melody shows Herrmann’s musical skills to strong advantage). In the second act, though, they get the score’s funniest number, as they age into what Sam and Monica think they’ll be like 50 years from now. Both sparkle in it.

Mark S. Hoebee provides the taut direction and minimal choreography. He creates elegance in the first act, and ups the sexual tension in the second. Best of all, Hoebee has placed everyone close to the lip of the stage so that “The Little Comedy” -- and the little musical drama that follows -- don’t get lost on the vast Millburn stage.

The show is yet another reminder that Paper Mill is still in its belt-tightening era. Is a small cast, small orchestra, and small set all the playhouse can offer? If so, at least they’re showing that two good things can come in a small package.