The new dance musical “Only Gold” tries to do Rodgers and Hammerstein one better. In all their classic musical, R&J give us not one pair of lovers but two: Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow plus Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow in “Carousel” or Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque plus Lt. Cable and Liat in “South Pacific.”
“Only Gold,” which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s MCC Theater, tries to squeeze a third couple into that musical-theater formula — and it produces a very unfocused and confusing first act.
The original story and book by Andy Blankenbuehler and Ted Malawer has way too much going on: A king, visiting Paris in 1928, tries to rekindle his fading marriage, tries to duplicate a now-lost necklace he gave his queen on their first date. He tracks down and hires the original jeweler’s watchmaker son, whose talented pianist can’t get any work in the concert world because she is a woman – it is 1928 – and becomes resentful of her husband’s new success. Meanwhile, the king has arranged a marriage for his daughter with a count — but she’s fallen in love with a bellhop at the Paris hotel where they’re staying (it’s the bellhop who locates the jeweler’s watchmaker son, of course).
To complicate matters up even more, “Only Gold” is as much a ballet as it is a musical, and as the great George Balanchine once opined, “There are no mothers-in-law in ballet.”
Blankenbuehler directs and choreographs, and by wearing that third hat, he is able to hold the first act together through his dance. Barely. His is a Fosse-esque style of dance – very contained with all kinds of twists and jerks and bent limbs — but his choreography also contains a lot of ballet vocabulary that allows for that carefully pent-up tension to break out and soar occasionally.
The story of three couples falling in and out of love never settles down cogently in the first act. All sorts of questions remain unresolved: The princess is called rebellious but the only sign of that temperament is her pulling a hissy fit when buying clothes. Much to the king’s distress, the queen announces that she is spending only 30 days in Paris – just after we’ve been treated to a song about the wonders of Paris. And really, when has 30 days ever been considered such a short visit?
For some reason, the watchmaker initially rejects the king’s offer to make the necklace, only to be convinced to take the assignment by his wife, who soon resents him for it and freaks out when he says they now have enough money to buy a new piano. She loves her old piano. (These are problems?) And running around the edges of this story are a couple of Franklin Pangborn characters held up to derision and mocked by the straights.
Oh, there is also a singing narrator: Kate Nash, who wrote the music and the lyrics. She is much less successful at walking across the stage. Nash, of course, is a recording artist and has acted in film and TV shows like “GLOW.” Maybe on a stage without a couple dozen professional dancers surrounding her Nash would appear more graceful. Here, she appears awkward and lacks presence, and most problematic, while her songs are occasionally catchy and infectious, they are not book songs that advance the narrative.
In the show’s weak first act, “Only Gold” sometimes resembles “Contact,” that Susan Stroman/John Weidman show from 2000, where the familiar pop songs (all pre-recorded) spoke only to the emotions of the characters. They never really furthered the action or told us anything about the characters. Stroman’s choreography and Weidman’s book did that. In “Only Gold,” the music is live (there’s a 10-piece band), but as with “Contact,” when the characters are emotionally conflicted, a song will mention the word “doubt.” When they are in love, the song will mention the word “love,” and so on. Otherwise, it doesn’t appear that Nash, Blankenbuehler and Malawer talked to each other much,
Act 2 is slightly different. Once all those couples have been established, they follow strict musical-theater conventions. Also, Nash suddenly gives us some book songs that further the action and speak to the specific motivations of the characters — alas, they are absolutely dreadful songs, particularly the lyrics.
The watchmaker sings about his inferiority complex: “I never thought I could be anything / Much less my dad / But to build a house / You start with a single brick / And going for a simple cup of tea / Can start a relationship.”
The queen sums up the show’s feminist take that women should not take second place to the men they love: “I got stuck / Backing up / Safety first / Thought it would work / Could I just / Trust my gut?”
And the king sings about his insecurities: “I don’t possess the power / The power to possess the people I was meant to / shower.” (With what? one wonders.)
Cian McCarthy’s orchestrations and arrangements give some of these clunkers a nice thumping beat that makes you want to get up and join the dancers. But there’s a strange mix of music credits on this show that speaks to the problem. Alex Lacamoire is credited with additional arrangements and orchestrations, and way back in the Playbill it is revealed that some of the songs have “additional music and production” by Frederik Thaae, Jennifer Decilveo, Tom Biller, Yonatan Ayal and Pierre-Luc Rioux and Jay Malhotra. As hybrids go, “Only Gold” is unique if nothing else.
Some extraordinarily talented dancers make Blankenbuehler’s choreography explode on stage. As the princess, Gaby Diaz resembles a young Liza Minnelli and brings a quirky masculine energy to this bland ballerina role. As her mom the queen, Karine Plantadit mesmerizes with her appearance and sleek way of moving. If ever they cast an all-female “Moby-Dick,” she would be the perfect Queequeg. Compared to them, Hannah Cruz in the nondancer role of the watchmaker’s wife finds herself in the same uncomfortable company as Nash. She appears awkward on stage, and worse, she takes a victim role and makes it far weepier than it should be.
Among the men, Terrence Mann handles the nondancer role of the king with far greater aplomb, thanks to a commanding speaking and singing voice. He more than holds his own against the dancing watchmaker-turned-jeweler (Ryan Vandenboom) and the dancing bellhop-turned-lover (Ryan Steele).
David Korins designed the opulent set, and Anita Yavich designed the gorgeous costumes.