Broadway stars Liz Larsen (Hairspray, Most Happy Fella) and Brad Oscar (The Producers) lead a deep and snappy ensemble in Noel Katz's new musical about the cast and crew of a 1950s TV variety show. Shades of The Dick Van Dyke Show, of course; but the center of gravity here is not the writer, but the star, Dottie Francis (Larsen), who mugs and chirps and pratfalls and Streisands through a bravura performance as a professional "funny girl" whose career, along with those of her long-running crew, is threatened by the pressure to name names at the McCarthy hearings.
The first act zips along on the glamour and good times of live television's golden age. Dottie, her director Gabe (Oscar), head writer Danny (a sad-eyed Jeff Talbott), and choreographer Donald (the swift-footed Dirk Lumbard) whip up skits and bits like they were cream pies. The team's peppery wit and talent, carried along on Katz's nimble lyrics and sweetly smart period music, engender what seems an endless font of joy for both creators and audience.
The only thorn in their side is the presence of the show's corporate sponsor – or, more precisely, a corporate nephew, Kenneth, played by Joshua James Campbell, who invests the part with a touching combination of goofiness and soul. But he's fallen for the ingenue Virginia Pepper (the delightful Shannon O'Bryan), so the team conspires to send the pair off to the Catskills on a fake scouting mission. That's the occasion for "Mountain Air," one of the many funny, brief, gusty, pointed musical numbers that push the story along through Act I.
Marc Bruni's staging flows brilliantly. At a couple of the scene transitions you almost catch your breath in appreciation, as if at an unexpected rhyme. Wendy Seyb's choreography takes advantage of the cast's energy and skill, and Larsen is just brilliant at "bad" dancing.
Act I ends with the clever "Court Jester," a song-and-dance number in which the team disguises a send-up of the McCarthy hearings as a manic tale from a mythical kingdom (Shades, here, of the Murder of Gonzaga in Hamlet. But there have been plays within plays – and shows about showbiz – for centuries. No reason to stop now).
The story, and with it the energy, peter out in Act II after the principals appear before McCarthy's committee. One successfully plays dumb; another names names; a third refuses to do so and hence can no longer work on the show. Without her essential team – the "good friends" of the title – Dottie can only soldier on miserably.
The plot gets wavy. An old performing partner of Dottie's (Lynne Wintersteller), trying to break into the new medium of TV, has, it turns out, appeared before the committee too – but was it her testimony, or the Jester sketch, that led to the subpoenaing of our heroes and heroine? I couldn't tell. More important, some of the story elements so winningly threaded through the first act just fray. While both Dottie and Danny are meted out some sort of moral fate, Oscar's Borscht Belt character – so jovially played and cannily developed – doesn't get one. The damned if you do, damned if you don't aspect of the McCarthy blacklists is explored a bit in Danny's denouement, but our emotional investment in Gabe gets no payoff, and we need that for symmetry and satisfaction.
We've also come to care about Kenneth and Virginia and their budding love story, but it's summarily dispensed with. Meanwhile the moral/political side of the story, earlier handled with a deft balance of reality and send-up in numbers like "You're a Red" and the court jester sequence, becomes heavy-handed in a number called "Some Kind of Hero," which lands with a thud as Katz's sense of balance deserts him along with his lyrical gifts.
Finally, the show ends indecisively. It feels like it needs either a big bittersweet finale, or some sort of shocking downer, but it gets neither, sullenly and suddenly closing up shop with a pout.
Such Good Friends as it stands is about three-fifths of a wonderful, old-style musical. Act I alone is worth the price of admission, and so is Larsen's performance. The whole cast is picture perfect (though Talbott's singing voice could use some technological boosting when it's paired with Oscar's stronger one). The music capably evokes the style and sensibility of the old standards of the period, and the simple and effective scene design comfortably houses the action, including Seyb's witty choreography. The sharp and sometimes brilliant dialogue, especially during the team's writing sessions, is still echoing in my ears.
One hopes the producers get the opportunity to punch up Act II and turn this into the smash it could be.
You can hear a few musical selections here.
Through Oct. 6 at the Julia Miles Theatre, 424 W. 55 St., NYC. Tickets (just $20) online at the New York Musical Theatre Festival website or call 212-352-3101.