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The Fix is still a fixer-upper. That’s an easy conclusion to draw after seeing the newly refurbished musical at Arlington’s Signature Theatre. But maybe that’s too easy; maybe there comes a point at which a show’s directors, producers, and creators need to admit that a flawed musical just can’t be fixed. That time, my fellow D.C. theatergoers, is now.
When it debuted back in 1997, The Fix opened not in the U.S. but in London, after British producer Cameron Mackintosh (the man who gave the world Phantom, Les Mis, and Cats) took a shine to the young Americans—composer Dana P. Rowe and writer John Dempsey—who created the musical. He talked Sam Mendes into directing, and premiered The Fix at the venerable Donmar Warehouse. But if Mackintosh thought Dempsey and Rowe were the next Boublil and Schönberg, he was wrong.
“It sounds like The Chappaquiddick Singalong,” quipped The Independent.
“Rubbish!” replied Mackintosh (basically). Defending Dempsey and Rowe in the Guardian, he sniped back, “The fact is, a lot of the British critics don’t have an ear.”
Ouch. With the producer’s approval, The Fix went to America for an overhaul at Signature. But U.S. critics, including City Paper’s Trey Graham, were also not fans. Two years later, Mackintosh gave Dempsey and Rowe another shot, debuting The Witches of Eastwick on the West End, with Eric Schaeffer directing—the same Eric Schaeffer who currently serves as artistic director of Signature Theatre. Reviews were a bit better than for The Fix, but the creative team still set about recasting and retooling Witches. The Guardian was not impressed with the 2001 re-opening at a smaller London theater. “Alex, Jane and Suki are like the scarecrow, the tin man and the cowardly lion: the writers allow them one characteristic each,” wrote Brian Logan of the three leading ladies.
More fiddling ensued, and then an American premiere at—where else—Signature, where Graham had little good to say about the “nipped and tucked” musical and dissed the singing as “lots of Disneyfied melismatic crooning.”
See a pattern here?
Last year, yet another version of Witches turned up at Maine’s Olgunquit Playhouse. This round of tweaks set the stage adaptation of John Updike’s novel in the swinging ’60s. “It’ll leave you spellbound!” raved the Portland Press Herald. Perhaps thinking they’d found a magic formula, Dempsey and Rowe came to Arlington this summer, made more tweaks, and tried setting The Fix in the ’60s too.
Blame the humidity. Blame the lack of lobster. Blame the big city critics. But for the record, it was my theater school-trained companion who sighed and said to me at intermission last week, “What can they possibly do to fix this?”
Not much. Act 2 was worse than the first.
The Fix chronicles the rise of Calvin Chandler, the scion of a fictional American political dynasty. It opens amusingly with the White House-bound patriarch Reed Chandler, played by the always-devilish Bobby Smith, dying in the arms of his mistress. Oops. But the bigger mistake is that every “scandal” in The Fix feels so prescribed and unoriginal. Cal Chandler (The Book of Mormon’s Mark Evans) gets into trouble with another woman, too. He’s also into drugs, booze, and sniffing glue. I know Hillary’s secret email server isn’t sexy, but even with the ’60s setting—acknowledged almost exclusively through the ladies’ Jackie Kennedy-looking costumes—it’s hard for contemporary Washington audiences to do much more than yawn at a politician who needs rehab.
The pop-rock music is as predictable as the plot. To quote yet another British critic, “The Fix mainly serves to advertise Mr. Rowe’s ability to write blandly in several styles.” The lyrics are trite. There’s little by way of character development, so Evans and the other two leads—Christine Sherrill as the WASP tiger-mother, and Lawrence Redmond as the polio-crippled, closeted gay uncle—do their best to play stereotypes. But it’s very tough for the audience to care about these spoiled, ill-behaved rich people with a house full of identically dressed singing maids.
By the anti-climax, it’s still unclear whether a member of the Chandler clan will ever become commander-in-chief. What’s obvious is that this aspiring theatrical dynasty of Mackintosh, Schaeffer, Dempsey, and Rowe needs to finally meet its long-appointed end.
4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $29–$85. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.