Seeking a new theatrical property, musical Midas Andrew Lloyd Webber snapped together two ingredients he happened to have on hand, and voila! -- "Song & Dance," the prefab musical. The touring version of the show is making a quick hit-and-run visit to Baltimore's Mechanic Theatre, with pop singer Melissa Manchester taking over from original Broadway star Bernadette Peters, and it makes for a flashy, familiar-sounding, but not very filling evening.
The first act, a one-woman song cycle originally titled "Tell Me on a Sunday," might fill a nightclub stage, but it looks pretty skimpy on the Mechanic's proscenium. Manchester plays Emma, a waiflike hatmaker from England in search of her green card and a good man. Before eventually selling her line to Neiman-Marcus, Emma sails swiftly through a series of entanglements with four typical types: Chuck, a rock drummer; Sheldon, a fast-talking movie producer; Joe, a sweet hick fond of red cowboy boots; and Paul, a married man. Finally, Emma learns to her horror that she has acquired the "New York look" she once coveted, and decides she likes her naivete' after all.
Making her musical theater debut, Manchester sounds swell and seems confident, eager and able to come across on the stage, but she can't quite bring the character off the lyric sheet. That may be because there's really no character there -- Emma exists only in relation to the men she's involved with -- and Manchester doesn't yet have the acting chops to create a person between the lines.
Manchester has an expressive face that will be a great asset if she continues on the stage -- and she should. But here her mannerisms alternate between an imitation of Bernadette Peters' moues and squeaks and the brassy crassness of her former employer, Bette Midler. Now and then the singer's own spirit and rich natural voice bubble up from under, and it's a pleasure.
Though the songs don't have the momentum to carry a show, Lloyd Webber, as usual, gets a few good licks in. "Tell Me on a Sunday" and "Unexpected Song" are as tunefully indelible as anything in "Cats" or "Evita." And lyricist Don Black (with an updating assist from Richard Maltby Jr.) scores best when skewering the peccadilloes of American men on both coasts.
The second act -- almost entirely danced -- is less successful. Lloyd Webber took music he had composed for a record album called "Variations," featuring rockish reworkings of a theme by Paganini, and laced it with snippets of "Cats" and other Webber works. The score was then given to Peter Martins of the New York City Ballet, who was charged with the task of creating a wordless link between the two acts.
The 45-minute dance sets out to tell the story of Joe from his arrival in New York, where he seems to encounter only hookers and abusive pimps, till he runs into Emma and pursues her a` la "On the Town." Martins borrows a bit here from Michael Jackson videos and a bit there from his own choreography for the revived "On Your Toes."
The vivid, sometimes vulgar steps are energetically danced by Bruce Falco and a young ensemble, all luridly costumed in day-glo and sequins, so it plays more like "Solid Gold Dancers on Broadway." But "Song and Dance" lights up again briefly -- when Manchester rejoins Falco and the company for the finale and curtain call, she takes a few sweet, uncertain steps with them, and her enjoyment is infectious. Song & Dance, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Don Black, choreography by Peter Martins. Directed by Richard Maltby Jr.; settings, Robin Wagner; lighting, Jules Fisher; costumes, Willa Kim. With Melissa Manchester, Bruce Falco, Mindy Cooper, Danny Herman, Cynthia Onrubia, Deborah Roshe, Herman Sebek, Scott Wise, Valerie C. Wright and Eugene Fleming. At the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre through Aug. 9.