What the show needs now is . . . better singing

In "Burt & Me" (from left): Dave Scheffler, Zack Jackson, Anabelle Garcia, Michael Hogan, Jordi Wallen. Only the women are in tune.
In "Burt & Me" (from left): Dave Scheffler, Zack Jackson, Anabelle Garcia, Michael Hogan, Jordi Wallen. Only the women are in tune. (GAIL GLASS)
Posted: September 10, 2011

The sweet musical Burt & Me, a picture of innocence set to the many songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, opened Thursday at Society Hill Playhouse with a tightened script but, alas, loose singing.

Set in Philly, Larry McKenna's life-cycle musical about a good Catholic boy who falls for a good Catholic girl - both of them sharing a love of the talented Burt Bacharach - had a run with another cast last summer at Ambler's Act II Playhouse. Since then, McKenna has worked on the script, and Burt & Me seems leaner, fluent, more polished.

That's the script itself. This production, which McKenna directs, has an oddly cartoonish disposition that wasn't apparent at Act II, and comes off as insincere; some of the line readings by two of its main characters, the boy who is Our Hero and his father, are stagy and forced - people just don't talk that way. And so McKenna's laugh lines, which are sometimes wry, shoot from the stage with a false exuberance that garners little reaction.

By the middle of the two-act play, I was overlooking the faulty interpretations - which worked only with the minor characters, drawn by McKenna more in caricature. At least the facile narrative arc of Burt & Me was carrying the show through.

But the singing - especially from the show's three guys - got in the way. If you're going to do a show ripe with the tuneful, smart songs of Bacharach and David - "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," "I Say a Little Prayer for You," "The Look of Love," to name just a few - you have to bring off the music.

The offstage four-piece band does, the two women in the show (Anabelle Garcia as the good Catholic girl, Jordi Wallen as her pal) do. The guys generally do not, or maybe cannot. When they sang together Thursday night they were often three men in search of a key.

Tall, lanky Zack Jackson, as the boy who drives this show, is endearing despite his overeager delivery, but he is frequently just this side of a note. When Michael Hogan, as his buddy, and Dave Scheffler, in different roles, join him, they are often on opposite sides of that note. What we get - especially in the first act - is Burt & Me: The Karaoke Version.

Bud Martin, the head of Act II Playhouse as well as a producer on Broadway and London's West End, took a cameo role Thursday, when I saw the show. Martin, who encouraged his friend McKenna to write Burt & Me, played the incidental part of a piano player (he squeezed the role nicely), a treat for an audience packed with late-1960s Cardinal O'Hara High School grads including Martin and McKenna, who drew on his experience there for the script.

As good as that script has become, it can't work without solid musical performance. From time to time we saw flashes of that, particularly when the women were on board. For much of the show, though, there was always something there to remind me.

Burt & Me

Through Sept. 18 at Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. Eighth St. Tickets: $38.

Information: 215-923-0210 or www.societyhillplayhouse.org.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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