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Heart and Soul, or the Lack Thereof

By Vladimir Zelevinsky


Huntington Theatre

Oct. 18 - Nov. 24

Book by Rupert Holmes

Lyrics by Lee Adams

Music by Charles Strouse

Based on the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

Directed by Mark Brokaw

Starring John C. Reilly, Anne Torsiglieri, Jim Bracchitta, Barbara Andres, Marilyn Pasekoff

I wonder what happened to the musicals where songs are an integral part of the story, where plot was not restricted to people talking but also took place when people were singing and dancing, a genre where you would actually look forward to the next musical number, something along the lines of Guys and Dolls, Les Miserables, The Sound of Music, or many dozens more.

Marty does not belong among these dozens. One reason might be the fact that it is adapted from another medium, two of them, as a matter of fact: the great Paddy Chayefsky wrote a TV movie in 1953 that was remade into a film two years later (and won the Best Picture Oscar). The TV movie is an hour long and the feature film is an hour and a half; the musical is longer than two hours -- and herein lies the problem.

The Huntington Theatre world premiere feels like a one-act show, padded to a lumbering two-act length by the inclusion of a dozen ballads. Each of these ballads, if taken by itself, would be perfectly nice -- but when they are coming one after another, slowing the narrative to a grinding stop, they feel increasingly tiresome; not a good thing, given that the aim of these ballads is providing the musical with its heart.

The story retains all Chayefsky’s strengths: it has a tangible sense of place and time, it has characters both specific and archetypical; it is familiar, yet deftly avoids cliches. Marty Piletti (John C. Reilly) is a sentimental butcher -- this already gives an indication of the story’s wry sense of humor -- and Marty is, by and large, a love story, an intentionally commonplace chronicle of looking for, finding, and trying to retain love.

It also has a solid center in Marty himself, a lovelorn but unsentimental man, and Reilly (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) zeroes in on this mixture early on, creating a fascinating character with a curious balance of pathos and sense of humor. Much less successful is Anne Torsiglieri as the woman Marty meets at a dance one Saturday night: the very first speech she gives is one of the most fake bits of bald-faced exposition I have ever endured, and the actress never really recovers from that scene. An amusing aside: the show’s two leads, an Italian-American man and an Irish-American woman, are played by a man with an Irish last name and a woman with an Italian last name.

Predominance of exposition can be also found in lyrics. The show’s stop-and-go rhythm is caused by the dominance of musical numbers in which the characters stand and sing out basic platitudes about themselves. Then there are musical numbers that have little to do with the story. The energetic “Saturday Night Girl” reprise would be all fine and dandy if the three guys who sang it had anything in the way of personality; however, this number is merely an attempt to have a showstopping number. It does stop the show, but not in a good way.

One “coulda been a contender” song is a humorous duet between two elderly women, “Niente Da Fare,” but it is denied a chance to build any momentum, being cut into several pieces and interspersed between dialogue passages. The overall effect of this scene and, to a lesser extent, Marty as a whole is the impression the songs were added late in the creative process, and Rupert Holmes wrote the book to contain every single moment of narrative and character insight. The only scene that fully works is the big dance scene close to the end of Act I. Curiously enough, it is the only time in the entire show the musical number is used as more than exposition.

Marty still looks good, mostly thanks to a beautiful set design by Robert Jones: entire houses slide onto the stage, the city backdrop glows with life, and (my favorite) the bar seems to come from an Edward Hopper painting, an oasis of light in the sea of dusk. Too bad this musical about people with heart but without looks is high on looks and low on heart.