'Heartbeats' has fine music and performers, but not enough pulse

November 04, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

There's no law requiring every musical to be a larger-than-life production with helicopters landing on stage, chandeliers plummeting into the orchestra or French history spinning by on a turntable.

"Heartbeats," which opened at the Morris A. Me- chanic Theatre last night, doesn't have any of these. Instead, it has references to Tuna Helper, Publishers Clearing House, football and TV soap operas. There's nothing wrong with that.

Everybody knows good things can come in small, unassuming packages. But if those good things are intended to be entertaining, engrossing musicals, they have to include a sense of genuine conflict.

In "Heartbeats," an early indicator of the low level of conflict shows up in one of the opening scenes, when the chorus members become real-life greeting cards. It's an amusing way to set the light tone of a show about a woman celebrating both a birthday and a wedding anniversary. But it's also an extremely accurate indicator of the emotional temperature of this small-scale musical, which has a script, lyrics and most of the music by Amanda McBroom, who also stars. This is Hallmark country.

So, the heroine is about to turn 40. . . So, she realizes that she and her husband have stopped talking to each other after 20 years of marriage. . . So. . .?

This isn't a musical about dramatic events, it's a musical about two people suffering from ennui. And, in that respect, "Heartbeats" does fail to uphold one of the fundamental laws of musicals -- the law requiring characters to sing when their emotions are too strong to merely speak.

Not that it isn't a joy to hear this cast sing, particularly McBroom, whose lush, evocative contralto packs more oomph into a single song -- such as the yearning she brings to "Dance" -- than there is in the plot of the entire show.

And therein lies the key to "Heartbeats'" low pulse. McBroom is primarily a cabaret singer, one with a reputation for being able to truly sell a song to an audience. "Heartbeats" began as a revue, which, in turn, grew out of her cabaret act. Listening to McBroom, I couldn't help wishing the thin plot and trappings would disappear, and she would just sell the rest of the songs to the audience herself -- especially her best-known composition, "The Rose," which ends the show.

Granted, there are other able performances. George Ball -- McBroom's husband on and off stage -- has a deep, resonant, bluesy voice that's especially well suited to his first number, "Hurt Somebody Blues." And while all four members of the

versatile chorus are capable, the standout is sexy Julie Lea Johnson, who can really ignite a torch song, and who does more than justice to the character described by the heroine as her best, oldest and tackiest friend.

Bill Castellino's choreography relies heavily on the synchronized movements of pop groups from the '50s and '60s. However, his direction includes some mildly amusing antics such as having the chorus members play roles ranging from sequined mail carriers and tap dancing grocery clerks to the above-mentioned human greeting cards.

One final word about those cards. In the last analysis, it isn't just the show's sentiments that are analogous, there's also a structural similarity. Fashioning a musical out of a song revue is a little like browsing through a card store and picking up a couple dozen appealing birthday and anniversary cards: No matter how thick a pile you assemble, when you put them together, they don't add up to a book.

'Heartbeats'

4 Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Through Nov. 28. (Sign-interpreted performances Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 13 at 2 p.m.; audio-described performances Nov. 6 at 2 p.m. and Nov. 9 at 8 p.m.)

Tickets: $17.50-$42.50

Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD: (410) 625-1407

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