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In Soon, a world premiere musical from composer, lyricist, librettist, and performer Nick Blaemire, the ice caps are melting, the oceans and the temperature in Manhattan are rising, and the Four Horsemen are saddling their mounts to drive us wretched human cattle into the next life. Charlie (Jessica Hershberg), the vapid couch potato at the center of the piece, has opted to spend humankind’s last days dug into her cozy Lower East Side apartment, bemoaning the emptiness of her peanut butter jar, talking to her goldfish, and mainlining Wolf Blitzer’s CNN doomsday bulletins. (She’s not even bingeing on good TV.) She likes to bake—she worked at a bakery, until she stopped showing up because what’s the point?—only not enough to actually go out and buy ingredients so she can bake something. Everyone grieves differently, true, but not all expressions of grief, and not all characters, are equally compelling.
There’s an eventual payoff to Charlie’s withdrawal from the world that you may or may not find to be an adequate return on your modest investment of 105 minutes in Blaemire’s glib, inviting romantic dramedy, which is in constant peril of becoming too cute to sustain its grim premise and wherein the dialogue is substantially sharper and funnier than the lyrics. (“I’m an astronaut,” Charlie tells the schlub who knocks on her door to deliver groceries. “Cool, me too,” he retorts.) If Charlie is a drag—and she is—at least her friends and relations are fun to be around. These are Steven, her flamboyant gay roommate (kleptomaniacal scene-stealer Joshua Morgan, forever dribbling various foodstuffs on his face); Adrienne, her flamboyant mother (Natascia Diaz), and Jonah (amiable Alex Brightman), the decidedly unflamboyant delivery boy who becomes a preternaturally patient and understanding hey-no-pressure-I’m-not-trying-rush-you-but-can-I-be-your-boyfriend? His past and present efforts to date her and to winch her out of her pit of despair, respectively, are what drive the plot and inspire the show’s most memorable song, “Waiting,” performed by Brightman.
Still, you wonder why he tries.
A similar problem plagued If/Then, at least as it existed in its pre-Broadway trial state here in D.C. 16 months ago. Brian Yorkey’s book presumed that star Idina Menzel’s character could unambiguously shut down an absurdly eligible suitor—a handsome, intelligent Iraq War vet physician, no less!—again and again, and instead of moving on to one of the 4,199,999 other women in New York City, he would pine adorably until she finally agreed to get coffee with him. Maybe contemporary musicals just struggle with the opposite of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype that afflicts comic films about vacillating young men.
Soon’s delay is more believably calibrated: Jonah is a grocery clerk who, on the evidence of his T-shirt, likes the Who, but whose other interests, skills, and aspirations, if any, remain opaque. In pursuing a woman who spends her time dreaming of the perfect hybrid of muffin and cupcake, he seems safely within the boundaries of his own league. Blaemire’s hand is surer when he’s sketching Charlie’s strained relationship with her mom: “How Are You?”, staged as a telephone conversation between Hershberg and Diaz, makes you believe their mutual wish for their bond to be stronger and their mutual confusion as to how strengthen it.
Director Matthew Gardiner handles the story’s nonlinear movement adroitly, signaling the start of a flashback scene by having his cast enter it backwards, for example. Daniel Conway’s scene design makes Charlie’s two-bedroom apartment look lived-in and welcoming, and creates convincing seasonal weather effects beyond its barred windows, right down to the real rivulets of rain on the glass. Matthew Haber’s projections are excellent, too, blanketing the stage in a grid of televised images of armageddon, then later turning that cramped apartment into a wide-open patch of Central Park. A four-piece, drummer-free musical ensemble performs the modest, soft rock, guitar-and-keyboard-driven score unseen.
For a show that purports to be inspired by the end of the world, it could use a little more chaos, though. Its wildest moment comes when Diaz waxes nostalgic in a number called “Bohemia Paradiso.” As she sings of her younger self, “She didn’t wear many clothes,” Morgan, that irrepressible hedonist, lets out a seemingly unconscious “YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.” At least somebody around here knows how to spend the last night on Earth.