With New York’s mayor pushing for size limits on sugary drinks and for keeping baby formula safely locked away until new moms are reminded of the benefits of breast milk, it seems like a good time for Bill Russell and Peter Melnick’s tuneful and amusing new musical, The Last Smoker In America, which eschews debates over the health issues of tobacco use in favor of spoofing government control over personal choices.
In a slightly futuristic urban setting, housewife Pam (the always grand Farah Alvin, an expressive belter who is wonderfully neurotic here) receives an electronic warning from a contraption installed in her home every time it senses that she’s about to light up. A mechanical voice automatically announces the current laws against smoking and the plans to implement even harsher ones.
At the outset, Pam’s habit has caused her husband Ernie (John Bolton) to be fired from his teaching position for smelling of tobacco, and he has reverted back to his rebellious youth by writing angry rocker songs like “Straight White Man.” Bolton and the authors manage to pull off the tricky task of being funny with intentionally bad songs.
Their hyperactive son, Jimmy (Jake Boyd) has obsessions with both video games and gangsta rap, the latter of which inspires one of those “white guy acting like a black guy” comedy songs. And since this high-concept sitcom family requires a nutty neighbor, there’s Natalie Venetia Belcon, forcing a flashing smile to go with her flashy vocals, as the highly-caffeinated, overly perky Phyllis, who’s trying to get Pam to kick the habit and, as her gospel number advises, “Let The Lord Be Your Addiction.”
Melnick, whose music was last heard Off-Broadway in the delightful Adrift In Macao, has a terrific knack for melody, even when he’s sticking satirical pins and needles and bookwriter/lyricist Russell (Side-Show) is continually giving the company funny things to do (under Andy Sandberg’s buoyant direction, the four-person ensemble is made up of exuberant comic performers), but after a promising set-up that suggests some wacky social commentary ahead, the 90 minute musical runs out of plot rather quickly, settling into an assortment of genial bits and novelty numbers before coming back to Pam’s addiction to wrap things up.
It’s all silly and appealing bubble-gum that’s entertaining enough if you ignore the occasional hints that it could be much more. If more of the musical was like its pre-show “turn off your cell phones” announcement – done in a darkly humorously way that is equal parts distasteful and brilliant – The Last Smoker In America might have set off some reAl Sparks.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Farah Alvin; Bottom: Farah Alvin and John Bolton.
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