By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
I now write in defense of beautifully staged, meticulously lighted, handsomely dressed, genuinely acted and shrewdly contrived soppiness. I make no apologies.
You will either detest the new musical Love Story, which has all of that and more at the Walnut Street Theatre, or you’ll give yourself over to stunning manipulation. You may regret it afterward — you’ve been played like a soulful cello by a cast full of Yo Yo Mas — but while you’re being sucked in you’ll be fully in the moment.
That’s precisely what happened to me. In retrospect, it happened against all odds, in a show that has so many scenes with so much kissing, I wonder about the production’s ChapStick bill; that is a stretch at 100 intermissionless minutes; that offers stereotyped characters cut from cheap cardboard; that — like the book it came from — is a jarring mixture of glib repartee, lovey mush and, finally, overwhelming sadness.
But what can you say? — those are the first words from the singing cast as they tell you about a girl “who learned to run before she could walk,” stolen by terminal illness at age 25. (I didn’t give it away. It’s clear from the first minutes.) What can you say, indeed, except that even goo has different quality levels.
Yes, this comes from the same Love Story as the 1970 hit pulp-romance novel written by the late Ivy League classics professor Erich Segal (who, incidentally, gave us the script for the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine), the one that traces the ill-fitting romance of a Harvard boy from an elite family and a Radcl iffe girl from the struggling classes, the one that spawned the knucklehead quote, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” also in the movie that followed and relievedly not in the musical.
The show, with pleasant music by Howard Goodall and book and lyrics by Stephen Clark, played London’s West End in a limited 10-week run two years ago. The Walnut’s production is its American premiere.
It struck me, after I saw Love Story on opening night without a handkerchief but with decent sleeves, that when all the parts fit elegantly live theater can sweep you into just about anything. Douglass G. Lutz’ musical direction and Annabel Bolton’s kinetic staging are spot-on, and an excellent eight-piece chamber orchestra plays at the rear of the stage, simply set with Peter McKintosh’s white room with classic columns.
Shon Causer lights all this — particularly our two lovers — in beautiful hues, sometimes with deep colored effects. The lovers are the adorable Alexandra Silber and Will Reynolds, who have an intense chemistry, great vocal ranges and pinchable cheeks; when they sing about falling in love, you can nearly surf on the waves of self-doubt in their voices, and when they’re young marrieds living on pasta — a great scene — the settling-down relief in their singing is palpable. Charles Pistone is her down-to-earth and loving dad. Paul L. Nolan and Jane Labanz are his ice-cold parents.
In the end, the production and the show, despite all the perils, are forceful without being forced. When you can make it seem genuine even though it's clearly not, you never do have to say you're sorry.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter.
Love Story: Through Oct. 21 at Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $10-$95. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.