By Margaret Darby
Emmanuelle Delpech’s direction of TouchTones showed sensitivity to timing and staging that created a perfect framework for the world premiere musical by Michael Hollinger (book) and Robert Maggio (music). Hollinger’s ability to put a character’s entire history and background into the simplest well-crafted dialogue was augmented by a cast who worked together beautifully on comedic timing and choreographed slapstick and dance (Melanie Cotton).
The play starts with high school sweethearts Christine (Alex Keiper) and Justin (Michael Doherty) taking a sober vow of chastity until their wedding night. They are starry-eyed and optimistic and join a Golden Circle, pledging to remain pure. (A caveat for those who are serious about vows of chastity, you will have to take it on the chin, although Hollinger makes only the briefest of references to religion.)
Five years later, Christine is wavering and asks Justin to yield to the itch. He counters by extolling the virtues of virginity on their wedding night, ably delivering the witty lyrics of the song, White Dress. When Christine discovers that Justin is using phone sex to scratch his itch, she decides to discover his sexual interlocutor.
When Christine arrives for her interview for a job at the TouchTones phone sex office, she is woefully unprepared. Michael Hollinger’s genius for dialogue creates three utterly unsexy phone calls. Christine’s timing is flawless as she stumbles through attempts at seduction. She finally burns hot when Brad (Darick Pead), the scholarly master of phone sex, gives her a tip. His tutelage creates of Christine a vocal vamp whose skills go beyond his and her wildest dreams.
Choreographer Melanie Cotton has created a vivacious dance scene for Christine to celebrate her new seductive persona and teams her up with Michael Doherty and Kevin R. Free, who whirl, rock and dervish with panache, grace and unbridled sexuality.
The set (Tim Mackabee) is simple with a central wall that revolves quickly. Stage Manager Alec Ferrell has orchestrated quick and smooth scene changes, often using the cast to bring props in one fell swoop.
The music by Robert Maggio is fun and peppy, but not terribly memorable for its tuneful originality. He is unusually skilled in his ability to compose in different genres and I am a fan of his chamber music. Perhaps I expect too much from a musical, but I would have enjoyed a larger orchestra than the very able trio of Ryan Touhey (keyboard, conductor), Andrew Sorensen (reeds), and Mark Cristofaro (percussion). And it would be nice if the Arden Theatre Company would put their musicians in more comfortable positions and even let them take a bow. Touhey’s piano playing and conducting via camera were excellent and Sorenson was super quick in switching from flute to clarinet and bass clarinet to saxophone, but I was hungry for more. Thanks to Rick Sims, the amplification worked quite well for the singers and the musicians and the quality of sound was great. The singers were not even in vocal quality, but all were great in projection and expression. Holly (Jess Conda) sings a duet with Teresa (April Ortiz), in Spanish, as part of an ensemble number in Act One, which was the finest music and performance in the show. Robert Maggio combined the women’s voices with clear and clean contrapuntal writing for the men’s voices which was quite moving.
The characters who become the new family for Christine at the telephone sex office are warm and cuddly, but each has their own romantic setbacks. Hollinger’s gift for dialogue allows us to learn of Teresa’s marriage difficulties (and her gift for phone sex) through her side of phone conversations in Spanish with clients and her husband. Even if you don’t understand the Spanish, Ortiz makes it clear exactly what is being communicated and the text is simple enough in this context that it works.
Joilet F. Harris plays Pearl, the manager of the call center, a no-nonsense but compassionate boss with infinite wisdom about life and love. Pearl’s speaking, singing and dancing are vibrant and she shines as the warm yet wary woman of the world, especially in her hilarious and lively rendition of Sex ain’t what it used to be.
This production is the Arden Theatre’s fortieth world premiere and the tenth at Arden for Michael Hollinger. It provides an optimistic view of conflicts of desire humans have dealt with since Eve and the apple and is at times shocking, but never pornographic. You may feel safe in inviting your grandmother to TouchTones, but don’t be surprised if she laughs more heartily than you do.
Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA. October 19- December 3, 2017. Tickets: $37-$52 for adults, Group discounts available for 15+ and student rush tickets 30 minutes before curtain. Call the box office at 215-922-1122 or visit ardentheatre.org.