The path from offbeat movie inspiration to generic musical passes directly through “Spin,” the bouncy work-in-progress that is christening Signature Theatre’s new Siglab musical development program. Although the show is slickly mounted by director Eric Schaeffer, it could use a rethink if it has ambitions beyond those of a soggy situation comedy set to music.
With a book by Brian Hill and a pop score by Neil Bartram, “Spin” does offer a juicy supporting platform for Bobby Smith, who plays an oleaginous TV gossipmonger, and an opportunity for the pipes-blessed Carolyn Cole to belt out Bartram’s power ballad, “I Am Yours.” But it has yet to allow an audience to form a useful attachment to its central character, the hollow host of a local singing competition show who at this point comes across as little more than a desperate fame junkie.
The musical, based on a 2008 Korean movie, “Speedy Scandal,” that was a hit in South Korea, has been adapted by Bartram and Hill at the behest of theater producer Chun-soo Shin, who is helping to finance its development. The unusual plan is to see “Spin” up on its feet, in English, at Signature before it is translated into Korean and staged next year in Seoul. Shin, who has been investing in Broadway shows, has said that he also is interested in exploring “Spin’s” potential for a Broadway run.
“Spin” is in part a sendup of the bottomless TV well of talent shows that try to turn nobodies into pop stars, and it achieves some satirical liftoff in the contestants it portrays. They fall easily into familiar molds: Maria Rizzo is funny, for instance, as a self-dramatizing soul singer who chews on her consonants as if they were pork chops. The musical also gets some mileage out of the sorry fates of surviving performers from the boy-band craze of the ’90s: The evening begins with a parody music video featuring strutting young guys in backwards baseball caps and sunglasses, gesturing as if they were teenage girl magnets. (This turns out to be an uncomfortably direct echo of the music-video opening of the highly successful 2007 movie “Music and Lyrics,” which starred Hugh Grant as a washed-up rock star.)
The frontman of that group has grown up to be Evan Peterson (James Gardiner), a has-been now emcee-ing a small-media-market version of “American Idol” and nursing a dream of a big-time comeback. Gardiner does a good job of conveying the hard edge of a man who reeks of showbiz cynicism, without the accompanying sweet smell of success.
One of the problems at the moment is that there’s not much more to Evan except for this hard shell. “Spin” doesn’t let us see anything in the early going but Evan’s arrogant careerism. So Gardiner is given no chance to reveal what else might be important to Evan and why we’d root for something to happen that would broaden his emotional horizons.
The story does provide the instruments of change: a daughter (Cole) whom the 35-year-old Evan didn’t know about, who shows up on his doorstep with her own son, played by the adorable Holden Browne. A former pop star who becomes a grandfather at 35 is not an everyday occurrence, so where’s the comedy song to address head-on what would have to be a serious blow to one’s youthful sense of oneself? “Spin” focuses unpleasantly instead on Evan’s efforts to teach little Jesse to lie about their relationship, in the puzzling number “Family Tree.”
And how, for that matter, would a man with such a juvenile worldview attract a woman of such abundant common sense and compassion as Jesse’s teacher Allison, portrayed so appealingly by Erin Driscoll? Allison and Cole’s underwritten Makalo are the major female characters, and they serve little purpose here other than to domesticate Evan. Driscoll at least gets a sharp song in Act II, “Well, You’re Not,” that allows her to demonstrate she’s not a doormat. Still, you’re left to wonder what exactly she sees in Evan that we don’t.
Although they’ve devised in Smith’s Richard Riddle a smarmy foil for Evan — Smith gets to show off his tap skills in “Everybody Loves a Scandal” — it’s not quite fully worked out why a locally produced talent show would employ its own gossip columnist. Or why a daughter in the life of a man whose career is DOA would be such a tantalizing news item.
Bartram and Hill know their way around pop tunes, which are backed up solidly by keyboardist-conductor Gabriel Mangiante and his three-piece band. Schaeffer knows how to put the songs in a polished package. But turning it all into distinctive musical theater is a translation yet to be achieved.
book by Brian Hill, music and lyrics by Neil Bartram. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Set, Daniel Conway; choreography, Matthew Gardiner; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Chris Lee; sound, Lane Elms; projections, Rocco DiSanti. With Chris Sizemore, Harry A. Winter, Jamie Eacker, Austin Colby. About 2 hours. Through July 27 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit www.signature-theatre.org or call 703-573-7328.