Emma chooses men badly. Or poorly. Or unwisely. Put another way, she’s a good woman whom bad men happen to. They’re not even bad men, really, just fatally flawed when it comes to being in a relationship, which is all Emma wants. So it goes in the melancholy “Tell Me on a Sunday,” a one-woman chamber musical featuring a luminous Nanci Zoppi as Emma, now at New Helvetia Theatre.
Zoppi gives Emma an overwhelming heart, and her vibrant, soulful voice fills the intimate space even as her familiar story feels like a static narrative loop. The diverse music is by none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Don Black and additional material by Richard Maltby Jr., who Americanized the original story. There are several beautiful songs in the 21-tune cycle, but collectively they impart a story that has often been elegantly told in just a single song.
Emma comes to New York as an idealistic, wide-eyed English girl with one American friend, Viv, and a rock-band drummer boyfriend. A hat designer hoping for a green card, Emma doesn’t even have time to unpack before the drummer has dumped her and she’s camping out with Viv in the opening numbers “Take That Look Off Your Face” and “Let Me Finish.”
Both tunes have catchy refrains and memorable hooks, and each is pleasantly reprised throughout the show as Emma sadly returns to her achingly single state. Next Emma meets a film producer and sojourns to Los Angeles, where her accent gains her entree to parties and openings, illustrated in the clever “English Girls.” She makes some common observations about Hollywood lifestyles in “Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad.”
While “Tell Me on a Sunday” is more than 30 years old, debuting in London in 1982, the play isn’t as much dated as it is uneventful. The film producer moves on and Emma decamps back to New York, eventually taking up with a more conventional traveling salesman. Heartbreak again ensues, bringing on the beautiful title ballad “Tell Me on a Sunday.” There are other lovely highlights with “Unexpected Song” and “What Have I Done?” but the similarly themed song cycle could become numbing if Zoppi wasn’t so game as the luckless heroine.
Zoppi has long been a go-to favorite of NHT, appearing in six of its previous productions including “Little Fish,” “It’s Only Life” and “ tick, tick ... BOOM!” Here, an English accent and droll comic asides accompany Zoppi’s powerfully emotional vocals in the role that won the uniquely compelling Bernadette Peters a 1986 Tony Award for her performance on Broadway.
Director Connor Mickiewicz stages the musical simply on a set-less platform dressed with suitcases, trunks and a rack of clothes that Emma pulls from as she changes costumes – though she’s just as often in her underwear as fully clothed.
The finely played live musical accompaniment comes from pianist Graham Sobelman and cellist Tim Stanley, who is stationed awkwardly in the middle of the stage, and though Emma never interacts with him, she must move around him from time to time.
There is such an evenness to the 70-minute production that the ending caught many audience members by surprise, as Emma’s final exit and the following blackout felt like it just might be another unhappy episode.
Nevertheless, “Tell Me on a Sunday” is the type of little-seen chamber musical that New Helvetia artistic director Mickiewicz designed his company to produce. Though not a perfect show (few are) the production is worth seeing simply for Zoppi’s bravura performance.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.