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A Sign of the Times

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - February 22, 2024

Alyssa Carol, Melessie Clark, Chilina Kennedy,
Lena Teresa Matthews, and Erica Simone Barnett

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
It's called A Sign of the Times, and zowie, is it ever. Start with a jukebox score, consisting of rock 'n' roll favorites old enough to be nostalgically remembered by people old enough to be able to afford a ticket. Hire an engagingly diverse cast and build a story around them that regularly spouts laudable, but entirely predictable, platitudes about political topics that permeated the long-ago setting but still possess some unfortunate currency. Stage it frenetically, with periodic irrelevant dance intervals, and top it off with a six-piece all-woman orchestra. Overmike it and stir. Thus, A Sign of the Times.

Accept those parameters, and you'll likely have a swell time. Lindsay Hope Pearlman's book, from a story by Richard J. Robin, thrusts us into 1965 New York City. It's little more than an expressway to speed us from one sixties earworm to the next, but it does attempt to raise the occasional populist point about injustices of varying kinds. The jukebox score, strangely omitting anything from the Beatles or Rolling Stones (too expensive?), concentrates on standards from the Petula Clark catalog and the like; there's even a scene in a pub called Petula's Clark Bar. York Theatre Company, happily relocated to New World Stages, dresses its production up in rainbow colors, with Brad Peterson's splendid, atmospheric New York City projections and costumes by Joanna Pan that are great eyefuls, though they seem more 1969 than 1965. The cast works hard, and occasionally they even make us care about this wisp of a story.

Which centers around Cindy (Chilina Kennedy), a native of white-bread Centerville, Ohio, whose boyfriend Matt (Justin Matthew Sargent) wants to settle down with her in Centerville and lead an Ozzie and Harriet life. An ambitious would-be photographer, Cindy opts instead for the bus to Port Authority, on which she meets Cody (Akron Lanier Watson), a Martin Luther King disciple heading to New York to organize civil rights rallies. In the first of several untenable coincidences, his girlfriend there turns out to be none other than Cindy's eventual Harlem roommate, Tanya (Crystal Lucas-Perry), who dispenses sass while pursuing a singing career. Cindy lands a spot in the secretarial pool at an ad agency, leading to several How to Succeed/Promises, Promises-esque production numbers and a romance with her boss, Bryan (Ryan Silverman), a Mad Man who woos her with numbers like "I Couldn't Live Without Your Love," but at heart is as sexist and opportunistic as Don Draper. Meantime, Matt gets drafted and goes to Vietnam, allowing for what-were-we-doing-there social comment, and numbers like "Eve of Destruction."

Don't expect to be surprised by anything, save for one savory late-breaking character arc that we didn't see coming. This bunch exists mainly to witness 1965 events and culture, and break out into 1965(-ish; several are a few years off) songs. Bryan, it turns out, is buds with Randy Forthwall (Edward Staudenmayer, donning J. Jared Janas's hilarious Andy Warhol wig), allowing Cindy, Cody, and Tanya to attend a bash at the equivalent of The Factory. That Bryan and Randy would know each other at all stretches credibility, but it does permit cues for "The 'In' Crowd" and "Something's Got a Hold on Me." There's a bad moment near the end where Bryan, whom we've come to thoroughly loathe, returns to The Factory to cavort with Cindy & Co. anyway, because, well, it's time for the curtain call. Director Gabriel Barre should have thought up a way around this.

Justin Showell, J Savage, Ryan Silverman, Michael Starr,
Edward Staudenmayer, and Kuppi Alec Jessop

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
The characters mostly say banal things like "The world is changing and I want to be part of that change," but Cody has a stirring speech about just that, and Cindy's frustration about a society where every young lady is a presumed bimbo still has some resonance. The dialogue, mainly utilitarian or a bald setup for the next number (for "Downtown": "And where did you say it was? Uptown?"), does contain the occasional zinger. The cast has a hard time supplying it with any conviction, though, and that may not be entirely Pearlman's fault. Kennedy, a proficient and capable Cindy in every respect, is not bursting with personality. Lucas-Perry, meant to be the big lady with the big voice who rocks the rafters, doesn't, though she's efficient with a wisecrack. Watson comes the closest to creating an actual character, and Sargent's Matt generates some sympathy, though given what Matt goes through, who wouldn't. In a sizable cast of supporting players, Staudenmayer's Randy generates the most laughs, and Maggie McDowell makes the most of an office drudge who's roughly the equivalent of How to Succeed's Smitty.

JoAnn M. Hunter's choreography is heavy on the pony and Fosse-like moves, though there's one clever number, "Five O'Clock World," with Bryan's cohorts rolling around on office chairs, like five male Miss Marmelsteins. Evan Adamson's set, with lots of sliding panels, smartly moves us around New York, and Shannon Slaton's sound design, while inevitably too loud, keeps most of the lyrics audible.

Those lyrics aren't always germane to the context; why would a band of sexually harassed secretaries demand that their bosses "Gimme Some Lovin'," and who said anything about sleeping in the subway, darling? But they're fun to hear anyway, and if Pearlman's book contains several anachronisms and the races mix a little more readily and merrily than they would have, it does maneuver its way aptly to the next Petula, Dusty, or Cilla. If A Sign of the Times is gossamer, it's cheery and diverting, and in the current musical theatre climate, you can't ask it to probe deeply into the issues or create anything really new. To expect that would be to dream the impossible dream. Oh wait, they left that one out.

A Sign of the Times
Through March 31, 2024
York Theatre Company
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, New York NY
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