Center Stage, NYC - March 2004
Review by John Kenrick
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions. All the photos below were provided by the production.)
Every showtune lover has done it, man or woman, straight or gay. A favorite diva belts her way through a kick-ass number, and before you know it, you're right in there with her, singing your heart out, like as not, in front of a mirror. Sure its a little crazy, but its lots of fun, its cathartic -- and now, its a new musical revue called Man Wanted! currently enjoying a nifty showcase production at Manhattan's Center Stage.
The approach is refreshingly simple -- two attractive young actors (Selby Brown and Ben West) with solid musical talent sing and cavort their way through about thirty show tunes originally written for women. When two friends polish off a bottle of designer vodka while singing "What Did I Ever See In Him?" (Bye Bye Birdie), or two lovers sharing the Sunday paper can't help wondering if there isn't "Someone Wonderful I Missed" (I Love My Wife), the original intentions of the composers are seamlessly applied to contemporary gay lives. Solidly written ballads (which this show is chock full of) work well sung by women or men -- as having a pair of male Siamese twins sing Side Show's "Who Will Love Me As I Am" makes hilariously clear.
There are times when the gender-switch seems a bit more forced. Man Wanted! goes out of its way to point out that the show is not performed in drag -- but for Someone Else's Story (Chess), one of the actors is preparing to put on make-up and a wig. How else could the lyric make sense coming from a man? And while both performers have enjoyable musical comedy personas, it would add to the audiences sense of a shared experience if this talented duo could drop those personas more frequently, particularly in the finale. But none of these points prevents this from being a very entertaining package.
Director Brian Swasey works wonders, taking fresh perspectives on myriad of songs and maintaining a tricky balance between razzmatazz and cabaret-like intimacy. At the piano, musical director Seth Bisen-Hersh is particularly attentive to the cast. The small performance space seems far larger and more varied than it is thanks to Aaron J. Mason's multi-level set and Ryan Elliot Kravetz's clever yet unobtrusive lighting. Costume designer Susan Barras makes a little go a long way, with simple interchangeable ensembles for each actor.
Ben West gets the credit for conceiving, producing and co-starring in this merry little showtune orgy. With a powerhouse singing voice and a wicked sense of humor, Ben West has no trouble segueing from moving introspection ("How Did I End Up Here?" from Romance Romance) to sophisticated flashes of camp ("Paris Original" from How to Succeed).
Selby Brown has a classic "boy next door" quality, and knows how to make the most of it, whether radiating frustration ("I Resolve" from She Loves Me) or vulnerability ("Colored Lights" from The Rink.) Many of the best moments come when Brown and West join forces -- they are a hoot as a patient and psychiatrist who gradually switch places while singing "You Can Always Count On Me" (City of Angels). These two gents are relative newcomers to the New York theatrical scene -- If talent, energy and good looks still means anything in this business, I have a feeling musical theatre lovers will be seeing more of both Selby and West in years to come.
An avalanche of great showtunes, well sung and packaged with wit and sensitivity -- that's a fun evening in my book. If your book has similar content, Man Wanted! will probably brighten your week as much as it did mine. (Regional and nonprofit theatres looking for an affordable season-filler, take note!)
Man Wanted! ran through March 14th, 2001.