The show business musical “I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road” comes from a particular time and place in the American cultural zeitgeist.
At the time of its Off Broadway debut in 1978, the show was notable for many reasons. With a book and lyrics by Gretchen Cryer, who also portrayed the lead character, Heather Jones, and music by Nancy Ford, we have a woman (on the verge of 40) taking charge of her career and, in effect, her life.
The play’s headlong dive into women’s liberation, the term before “feminism” took hold, struck a chord with the audiences who supported it for 1,165 performances in legendary producer Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival at the Public Theater. Despite a brief reprise last year at Encores! New York City Center, the revivalists who specialize in such things, the show has become an anachronism.
A new production at New Helvetia Theatre that runs just two more weekends shows the backstage drama’s charms and limitations. With the winsome Maggie Hollinbeck as the determined Heather, the production has a smart, intriguing center with equal amounts of assurance and vulnerability. Hollinbeck carries the show’s best tunes with a supple and emotive voice, which continually summons more heft than you think it will.
However, there is no subtlety or subtext here. Everything sung and spoken comes on so direct and meaningfully earnest that by mid-show the ideas have frayed to breaking. The story is set in a New York rehearsal space where Heather is running through her new cabaret act for longtime manager and friend Joe (Jerry Lee). Joe has just flown in from “the coast,” and he’s excited to hear the new material. His excitement quickly wanes once he does.
Heather’s reality is all too much of “downer” for him, but the real downer in the show becomes the endless dialogue scenes he and Heather have about her new songs and new direction. Joe also has an offstage wife whose emotional dramas come between him and Heather in ways suggesting there is more between them than just work.
Those repetitive arguments drain most of the show’s momentum. The energy that’s left is expended on obvious extended skits by Heather and her back-up singers (the fine vocalists Lauren Parker as Alice and Nanci Zoppi as Cheryl). The songs mostly are cut from the late ’70s power-pop-ballad cloth.
What might have been fresh and challenging in 1978 seems quaint now. It’s not as if Heather is living in “A Doll’s House.” And it’s not that ideas of women taking charge of their lives, careers, image and sexuality don’t have contemporary currency; singers such as Madonna, Beyoncé and Lorde still ride that wave.
The sentiments of empowerment that hit home 35 years ago seem musty as they’re presented here. Heather finds herself torn between the desire for a relationship and the unwelcome compromises of self- and artistic expression that seems to entail.
There just don’t seem to be any eligible enlightened men around. Her young guitarist, Jake (Tristan Rumery), makes an impassioned application, but he’s hardly noticed by the preoccupied Heather. She’s consumed by the battle between Joe, who wants the same old Heather, and herself, who wants a new, different Joe.
Connor Mickiewicz directs the weighted script with as much efficiency as possible, and pianist Chris Schlagel provides the solid musical direction for the live, onstage four-piece band. In many ways this is likely as fine a production as you’ll see of a significant piece of American musical theater that feels very much stuck in time.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.
I’m Getting My Act Together
and Taking It On the Road
What: New Helvetia Theatre revival of the 1978 hit musical
When: Through Nov. 23; 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Nov. 23
Information: (916) 917-0024 or www.newhelvetia.org
Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission