Opening Nights: Tell Me on a Sunday

Webber’s stinginess with melody daunts ArtsWest’s star.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is often described as one of those composers who can toss off a musical in his sleep. And he appears to have done just that with Tell Me on a Sunday: It's stuffy, dated, and dances dangerously close to misogyny, while stubbornly resisting the efforts of its solo star at ArtsWest to redeem it. The show, meant to explore an English girl's American coming of age, was conceived as something of a vanity project for Webber and his composing partner Tim Rice in the wake of their success with Evita in the late '70s. Unfortunately, Rice, married with kids at the time, had in mind to mold their work into a starring vehicle for his mistress. When Webber discovered this, he abruptly pulled the plug and sought another lyricist.Over the years, Sunday has been pared back and expanded ad infinitum, to little improvement. Lyricist Don Black (best known for penning Born Free) was brought in to apply a new plot to Webber's existing tunes, and that's pretty much the way it sounds. The story was moth-eaten from conception: British ingénue arrives starry-eyed in New York, determined to make her mark without compromising her morals, then proceeds to do precisely that while occasionally writing home to beseech Mum to kindly withhold judgment.When the show moved from the West End to Broadway in 1985, Richard Maltby Jr. helped "Americanize" the play, and this production won Bernadette Peters a Tony in 1986. The star of ArtsWest's production, Danielle Barnum, can also command a stage. Her singing is emotive, and her acting deftly navigates a string of monologues that border on insipid. But you won't miss that she's a performer still in gestation. When Barnum pushes her as-yet-untrained voice past its limits, the result is far from pretty. You have to admire her pluck—and weigh the wisdom of director Christopher Zinovitch, who gave Barnum both the opportunity and the heavy lifting required in a monologue with songs.It's 80 minutes in your seat, and Tell Me on a Sunday is quite nearly melody-free. I've often loathed Webber musicals for just this reason. Evita has "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," Cats has "Memory," and The Phantom of the Opera has "The Music of the Night." But too much of the rest of these scores is dross or filler. Tell Me on a Sunday has exactly one tune you can walk out humming: "Take That Look Off Your Face," which has less going for it than, say, "Fergielicious."There are some amateurish moments in the orchestra too, as violin, viola, and cello slog it out with conductor Deanna Schaffer holding down the fort on piano. Ultimately, though, it's not the earnest nonprofessionals who'll turn you off to this piece. It's Webber and his mile-long coattails once again disguising that underneath the snappy tux jacket, he's wearing nothing at all.

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