A modest affair is set to melody in ‘A Second Chance’
By Peter Marks
Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011
As direct and warmly intended as a letter from a friend, “A Second Chance” is a heartfelt new chamber musical about a middle-aged New York banker who lost the love of his life and slowly found the courage to open himself up to a second.
The stages of the budding relationship of Dan and Jenna (played by married actors Brian and Diane Sutherland) are delicately traced in this evening of 20 songs by Ted Shen, a former New York business executive who’s long been devoted to musical theater. He’s so ardent that his foundation has given Signature Theatre — where “A Second Chance” had an official opening this week — more than $1 million for a program to spawn new musicals, out of which have come Signature’s world premieres of Michael John LaChiusa’s “Giant,” Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Sycamore Trees” and Joseph Thalken, Michael Slade and Mark Campbell’s “And the Curtain Rises.”
“A Second Chance” reveals the depth of Shen’s yearning for a slot of his own on the production calendar. While the autobiographical musical comes across as a credible chronicle of the halting progress in the romance of a taciturn man and a vivacious woman, there is something a little too reserved about the piece, as if its author were conflicted about how much emotional detail he was prepared to set to melody.
As a result, the show, guided with a sensitive hand by director Jonathan Butterell, stakes out fairly non-dramatic turf. For a form that fusses to an excessive degree over young love, it is gratifying to listen to the complaints, worries, joys and epiphanies of a more mature couple. But the slightly precious songbook of “A Second Chance” lacks an essential element of surprise. It mostly deals with the familiar milestones of a new relationship: the promising first meeting; a chance encounter; an awkward run-up to a first date; the tensions that arise as doubts surface after a courtship grows more serious. I’m not sure the show ever satisfactorily justifies what it is about this particular love story that cries out for the full scale staging of musical theater.
The Sutherlands, as you might expect, have a natural chemistry, and so they make sense of the conceit of opposites attracting. We learn in “A Second Chance” that Dan’s beloved first wife has died and that even as his feelings warm toward the saintly Jenna, he can’t purge the survivor guilt. On the all-but-bare stage of Signature’s smaller space, the Ark, the actors in concert with projections designer Rocco DiSanti conjure the Manhattan museums, parks and apartments in which the affair ebbs and flows.
If the score lacks a standout number, it does have a jazz-inflected coherence, enhanced by the crisp attentions of sound designer Matt Rowe and a five-musician combo of saxophones, drums, bass and keyboard, conducted by Zak Sandler.
The show’s stabs at lightheartedness, meanwhile, seem overly self-conscious: a song, for instance, in which the banter between Dan and Jenna concerns a secondary character on “Mad Men” is far too contrived.
But the rapport between the actors does assist in giving the evening a convivial polish. Diane Sutherland, so earthily effective as the suburban mom in “Sycamore Trees,” is again an asset, conferring on Jenna a vibrantly benevolent essence. And in the more recessive role of the grieving widower, Brian Sutherland commendably conveys the idea of a man who’s drawn to a more exciting life force but doesn’t know how to emerge fully from his shell.
Their voices blend agreeably for a show that conceptually might be more at home in a cabaret setting, an environment in which this modest production might indeed get a beneficial second chance.
Book, music and lyrics by Ted Shen. Directed by Jonathan Butterell. Set, Robert Brill; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Jennifer Schriever; orchestrations, Bruce Coughlin. About 1 hour 40 minutes. Through Dec. 11 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit www.signature-theatre.org or call 703-573-7328.
Backstage: 'Second Chance'
By Jessica Goldstein
Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011
Signature Theatre's world-premiere musical "A Second Chance," which opens Tuesday, explores the idea of having a once-in-a-lifetime experience more than once. Even though, colloquially, we talk about love as a search for The One, "A Second Chance" offers an alternate narrative: the possibility of falling in love, twice.
The book, music and lyrics by Ted Shen draw on Shen's memories. His first wife died of cancer, and he has since remarried.
The show stars real-life married couple Brian and Diane Sutherland, Broadway veterans. Brian has appeared in "The Sound of Music" and "1776," among others, Diane in "The Light in the Piazza," "Cats" and numerous other productions.
"A Second Chance" tells the story of Dan, a professional man who has lost his wife of many years, and Jenna, a lab worker at Sloan-Kettering and survivor of a messy divorce.
"She's a hopeless romantic," Diane said of her character. "She keeps trying to open up her heart."
"One of the most powerful ideas that we explore is the idea of commitment and betrayal," Brian said. "If you've made a commitment to somebody, and even if they die, how do you reconcile that? How do you wrap your brain and heart around opening up to someone new?"
Knowing each other as intimately as the Sutherlands do brings its own set of challenges for the couple. "We have to banish all that we know about each other," Brian said, "in order to freshly know each other."