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Though Oscar-nominated for its screenplay, Sleepless in Seattle occupies a place in cinematic history as the romantic comedy to end all romantic comedies, and in hindsight, it appears that indeed it has. Twisting the virtues of the form inside out, the movie focuses entirely on egocentric fantasies of romantic love, completely eliminating the essence of two people courting their way past their differences to a dynamic harmony. If it was galling in fairy tales that “happily ever after” begins with marriage, here it’s posited that all is transcendently resolved upon merely managing to meet.
Jeff Arch, originator of film story and co-screenwriter, here pens his own musical book without the collaboration of the late Nora Ephron and David S. Ware. By necessarily compressing the narrative, this world-premiere musical at the Pasadena Playhouse consequently stylizes it more agreeably. So while it still celebrates immature and self-dramatizing notions of love that can be unhealthy for relationships and other living things, its sentiments are far more suitable to expression through song.
Although there remain opportunities for improvement (particularly in the confusing action that opens the second act), it’s conceivable this may represent the best stab possible at legitimizing this rum material.
Widower Sam (Tim Martin Gleason), a mere year after his wife’s death, is being pressured by his 10-year-old son, Jonah (Joe West), to start dating again. Though he insists they are doing well enough on their own, Sam does stay awake nights staring into space. Jonah dials a radio call-in psychologist and impresses his dad onto the phone, where Sam’s reluctant sincerity generates a frenzy of letter-writing from interested women across the country.
Meanwhile, Baltimore-based feature writer Annie (Chandra Lee Schwartz), newly engaged to reliable if stolid Walter (Robert Mammana), is herself captivated and dragooned by her editor, Becky (Sabrina Sloan), into penning her own missive. She extols the virtues of Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson and offers to meet Sam atop the Empire State Building next Valentine’s Day, borrowing the plot device from her favorite mythic love story, 1957’s An Affair to Remember, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. (For all the misdirection, Sleepless in Seattle actually cribs most of its inspirations from the great 1963 Vincente Minnelli film The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.)
Leaving aside the corrosive irony that everyone in the story and probably in the audience has only watched that CinemaScope classic by the brilliant Leo McCarey in a criminally compromised, visually mangled pan-and-scan version on television — or that McCarey’s original 1939 RKO version with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, rendered unviewable for decades because of the Fox remake, remains markedly superior — the glories of this romantic touchstone reside in its chaste and therefore exclusively emotional dancing into alignment of two wary charismatic souls.
Amusingly, in this musical, several jokes allude to the impossibility of making that movie “today” (i.e., the early 1990s), even though Warren Beatty was then already in production on his own ill-fated version. With this vehicle itself now relegated to being a period piece, it dates itself not just from the phones, or the centrality of nationally syndicated radio, but from the demise of the established dating ritual itself. Nowadays young people socialize in packs, while sharing privacies with unknown parties hardly ranks as unconventionally daring.
With Sleepless in Seattle, the laws of casting dictated that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were meant for each other, while here onstage, the two leads become far more appealing for their lack of foot-lambert star power. They are more accessibly credible in their fanciful representations of the audience’s projections of themselves. Gleason’s exemplary sad-sack contrasts so mightily with Annie’s ferociously quixotic pipe dreams that one may well wonder how well these two might actually get along save by the fiat of their and the audience’s willingness to delude oneself against all odds.
Curmudgeonly grumping aside, there’s a lot of intelligent craft afoot here. The songs may be more pleasantly workmanlike than memorable, the peppy lyrics mostly free of clunky couplets, yet above all, they skillfully propel the narrative forward in just the way a musical ought to do, and the adept orchestrations help the actors make the most of them.
The staging of Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps keeps the plates spinning skillfully, and if it’s not a knockout show, it does persistently entertain against all odds. Child performer West particularly captivates the audience, encouraged to go right up to the rousing edge of too much.
And however fraudulent the denouement, it is still, as it was in the movie, a surefire weeper. On opening night one of the women in the chorus ensemble ran onstage for the curtain call brushing away her own tears.
Venue: The Pasadena Playhouse (runs through June 23)
Cast: Tim Martin Gleason, Chandra Lee Schwartz, Joe West, Sabrina Sloan, Robert Mammana, Todd Buonopane, Cynthia Ferrer, Katharine Leonard, Lowe Taylor, Adam Silver, Charissa Hogeland, Teya Patt, Yuka Takara, Terron Brooks, Jay Donnell, Sachin Bhatt
Director: Sheldon Epps
Book: Jeff Arch, based on the 1993 film written by Arch, Nora Ephron & David S. Ward
Music: Ben Toth
Lyrics: Sam Forman
Choreographer: Spencer Liff
Scenic designer: John Iacovelli
Lighting & projection designer: Brian L. Gale
Sound designer: Carl Casella
Costume designer: Kate Bergh
Music director: David O
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin
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