Review by Mark A. Newman
Two-person musicals are a mixed bag. For every masterpiece like Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, there are at least five misfires like The Story of My Life, a Broadway failure from a season or so ago. A Second Chance by Ted Shen playing at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., I’m happy to say, is a pleasant entry into this genre. It should be noted that Shen is a musical newbie, having recently left a life in the financial sector to let out his inner Lloyd-Webber. It should also be noted that Shen has donated a lot of money to the non-profit theatre’s coffers, so it’s easy to dismiss this show as simply quid pro quo for helping to keep the footlights on another season.
Not so fast. Knowing this backstory I walked into the Signature’s intimate ARC Theatre wanting to dismiss A Second Chance as a vanity project by a rich benefactor with too much money and too little talent. Happily my preconceptions were swept away as soon as the five-piece ensemble started in on Shen’s upbeat, jazzy score. With shades of Sondheim, the aforementioned Jason Robert Brown, and lots of Maury Yeston, Shen’s tunes bounce along nicely throughout the 90-minutes we get to see the blossoming of Dan and Jenna’s budding romance.
Said budding begins when the two “meet cute” at a mutual friend’s dinner party. Dan (a stoic Brian Sutherland) recently lost his wife and Jenna (a bubbly Diane Sutherland) just got through a less-than-amicable divorce. Both are wary of the other and each voices their concern that the relationship is pointless since it won’t go anywhere. They voice these concerns to us rather than to each other in conversation. Speaking of conversations, that’s essentially how most of the lyrics prattle on—like a conversation. The entire 90-minute show is mostly sung-through so points have to get across in an as tuneful manner as possible. Conversations about past loves and losses, art, friends, Sondheim—a blatant homage—and even the plot of the television show “Mad Men” are all sung with lyrics that are unusually real (people really do talk that way) rather than in a manner that would make the rhymes work.
While both Sutherlands are likable and skilled at their craft, the advantage goes to Diane whose Jenna is simply a more approachable, adorable character. Brian’s Dan—obviously wounded at the loss of the woman he considered the love of his life—remains standoffish and reserved throughout the courtship. It’s easy to see what Dan would see in Jenna—she’s funny, quirky, ebullient, full of life, and fun to be around. It’s less obvious trying to figure out what Jenna sees in Dan—he’s, um, tall and I mentioned stoic, right? In my opinion, Jenna could do better in this equation since there are other fish in the sea that is the dating world in New York City.
The story, the location and Robert Brill’s beautifully sparse yet elegant set reminded me of the most recent revival of Sondheim’s Company, another fantasia on single life in Manhattan. A Second Chance could be the unofficial sequel to this early 1970s chestnut with Dan stepping into Bobby’s bachelor shoes a couple of decades after Bobby’s friends have divorced amid his own failed attempts at romance.
Aside from Brill’s set, Matt Rowe’s sound design, and Jennifer Schriever’s lighting, special attention must be given to Rocco DiSanti’s projections which were displayed across the stark white rear wall throughout the production. Used to transport us to different times and places, the projections ably succeeded in contributing to the show’s subtle elegance. Creative mastermind Susan Hilferty is credited with the costumes, but they simply look like anything bought off the rack at Ann Taylor Loft or Banana Republic, the likely places Dan and Jenna would pop into before their trip to Central Park, the museum, or after brunch with Dan’s judgmental friends.
Kudos to Shen for creating a lovely and intimate little musical and kudos to Signature Theatre for continuing to embark on brave new journeys by taking chances on new artists. I should add that the Signature’s own production of the Broadway sensation Hairspray was playing at the larger theatre next door, but A Second Chance was the perfect antidote to Beltway traffic, throngs of Christmas shoppers, and the quickening descent of December darkness.
A Second Chance
Featuring: Diane Sutherland (Jenna) and Brian Sutherland (Dan).
Book, Music & Lyrics: Ted Shen
Scenic Design: Robert Brill
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Jennifer Schriever
Sound Design: Matt Rowe
Projections Design: Rocco DiSanti
Orchestrations: Bruce Coughlin
Music Directon: Zak Sandler
Directed by Jonathan Butterell
Tickets: 703 820 9771 or www.ticketmaster.com
Running time: 90 minutes, with one intermission
4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, Virginia 22206
Closes December 11