'Darling Grenadine': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Emily Walton and Adam Kantor in 'Darling Grenadine'
A charming chamber musical of the old-fashioned variety.
3/15/2020

A songwriter and a Broadway chorus performer struggle with relationship issues in Daniel Zaitchik's romantic musical receiving its New York premiere.

The title of Daniel Zaitchik's new musical provides a clue that it isn't simply going to be a story of boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy runs the danger of losing girl. Most musical love stories feature one character rapturously singing an ode about another. In Darling Grenadine, the most passionate number instead celebrates the glories of the sweet syrup that gives the non-alcoholic Shirley Temple drink its flavor. That seems perfectly reasonable, considering it's booze that threatens to derail the tender relationship at the story's center.

Receiving its New York City premiere after previous runs at Goodspeed Opera House and Chicago's Marriott Theater, this chamber musical revolves around successful jingle writer Harry (Adam Kantor) and Louise (Emily Walton), a Broadway chorus performer and understudy who has yet to go on for the star of the musical in which she's appearing. In true romantic comedy fashion, the couple "meet cute," with Harry introducing himself, in stage-door Johnny fashion, as Louise is exiting the theater after a performance.

Although slightly put off by his boldness, Louise is nonetheless charmed by his effusive compliments on her performance. He, in turn, is not so secretly delighted when she notices the dog fur on his jacket and thoughtfully cleans it off.

"She lint-rolled you?" asks Harry's brother Paul (a charismatic Jay Armstrong Johnson) upon hearing of the encounter the next day. More importantly, Louise called the phone number Harry wrote on a Playbill, and the two are having their first date later that night.

Thus begins the couple's relationship, which leads to them helping each other to overcome their respective insecurities. Louise encourages Harry to resume composing new songs, and he in turn assures her that she has the talent to rise from the chorus. But serious conflicts surface when she becomes aware of Harry's drinking problem, signaled early on by his many furtive swigs from the flask he always seems to have on him.

Darling Grenadine isn't fully successful in navigating its significant shift in tone from musical rom-com to serious dramatic territory, most of which is dealt with in the second act. And the storyline's alcoholism angle feels more than a little familiar, not explored in particularly interesting fashion. Nonetheless, the show proves both charming and bittersweet, delineating the troubled love story in uncommonly realistic fashion.

We truly become invested in the lives of the characters, including Paul, who deeply loves his brother but has become frustrated by his inability to straighten out his life, and another major character, also named Paul, who happens to be Harry's beloved Labrador. The pooch is a constant presence in the show, although we never actually see him. Instead, he's personified by an onstage trumpet player (Mike Nappi), whose musical phrasings on the instrument, as well as his soulful eyes, prove remarkably expressive of the canine's feelings.  

If the book occasionally is problematic, the tuneful music and sophisticated wit of the lyrics are first-rate (although I could have done without the songs "Every Moon," which is inordinately consumed with the subject of black licorice, and "Paradise," a lengthy number from the Broadway musical in which Louise is appearing). That Zaitchik is responsible for every element perhaps accounts for the self-indulgence on display; Darling Grenadine, running nearly two-and-a-half hours, would greatly benefit from judicious trimming.

One aspect that works enormously to the musical's benefit is Roundabout Underground's chamber production, presented in the round in a tiny black box theater in which you're practically within touching distance of the performers. The intimacy adds significantly to the small-scale piece, sensitively directed by Michael Berresse; its appeal could easily be lost in a larger theater. Although the scenic elements are minimal, Edward T. Morris' projections provide bewitching atmosphere.

The performances, too, are first-rate. Kantor, who's lately made a specialty of romantic longing with his moving turns in The Band's Visit and Fiddler on the Roof, and Walton, recently seen in Come From Away, are likable and affecting, movingly conveying their characters' vulnerabilities. Johnson (On the Town) is so good as the supportive brother you wish he had been given more to do musically, and Matt Dallal and Aury Krebs provide solid support as a variety of minor characters, the former most amusingly as a sarcastic barista.

Despite being the sort of old-fashioned musical love story that seems to have fallen out of vogue in this cynical age, Darling Grenadine never feels like it's pandering to the audience. On the other hand, if its final moments don't thoroughly delight you, you're clearly not a dog lover.

Venue: Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, New York
Cast: Matt Dallal, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Adam Kantor, Aury Krebs, Mike Nappi, Emily Walton
Book, music & lyrics: Daniel Zaitchik
Director-choreographer: Michael Berresse
Set designer: Tim Mackabee
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Sound designer: Brian Ronan
Projection designer: Edward T. Morris
Orchestrations: Matt Moisey
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company