“I wanna be your omelette”
The Landor continue their place at the vanguard of new musical theatre writing with this UK premiere of Next Thing You Know, a new musical from Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham, perhaps best known for I Love You Because. A tale of 20-something generational angst, it follows four New Yorkers struggling through young adulthood in a world of huge possibility but seemingly limited opportunity, focusing on the frustrations that artists face in trying to pursue their dreams. But despite a solid production from Robert McWhir at this late preview performance, it didn’t really take me as the type of musical theatre that ticks my boxes.
Anna Michaels’ design splits the small stage of the Landor into the key areas of the show – a bar, a living room, an office – but this does constrain the action somewhat, giving scenes something of a cramped feel as they don’t often have the freedom to breathe into the space. But the problems lie more with the material itself. Cunningham’s book puts too little at stake, asking us to invest in the career choices of fairly non-descript characters without ever really giving us a sense of the vibrancy of their artistic lives.
Much of the show is taken with Waverly’s dilemma as she balances two jobs, working as a barmaid and also at a legal firm, with her desire to become an actress – the reason she moved to New York. Her crisis comes to a head when offered a full-time job with the lawyers and as she thrashes it out, her connections with her boyfriend Darren – a playwright waiting for his big break whilst temping at an ad agency – and her wannabe singer best friend Lisa are put to the test. But there’s just no urgency, no desperation to really make it which would get the audience hooked in – there’s precious little sense of how much being an actress means to her – or indeed enough passion in the relationships in her life to demonstrate just how significant they are.
Salzman’s score doesn’t really help matters as it plots a rather haphazard yet unadventurous musical journey which makes little attempt to play on the potential of the multiple voices of its cast, preferring instead to stick to rather anodyne material which feels overfamiliar. The overall impact is almost of a revue – a number about pulling in bars has a vaudevillian quality, the Act 2 opener about hangovers marks a rare foray into effective comedy, one character breaks into a power ballad a propos of ‘I’m not quite sure what’ which grinds the show to a halt with its showboating vocals. No sense of a cohesive musical identity emerges to guide us through the story and so once again, we’re left questioning how seriously to take the dilemmas that are meant to be shaping the destinies of these people.
These conflicts mean that the company are often left marooned in the show and it is to their credit that they manage to make appealing performances out of such lean pickings. Bart Edwards makes Darren earnestly adorable and Amelia Cormack shines as the underwritten lesbian Lisa. Jennifer Potts does her best as an eminently likeable Waverly, missing something of the passionate drive a lead needs due to the writing. And Aaron Lee Lambert as a workmate of Darren’s suffers from some major inconsistency in his character – willing and able to pick up one night stands in a bar yet apparently more interested in talking once at her place… Michael Webborn’s string-led band adds a definite lustre to the music which elevates the whole experience but the final happy-clappy note feels misguided and left me waiting for the next next thing to know.