Sarah Stiles, Bill Nolte, James Beaman, Keith Gerchak and Bruce Warren in The Road to Qatar! Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: The jokes fly, the characters are broad, the songs are beautifully sung, and believe it or not, it all really happened.
Exclamation points: love 'em or hate 'em, they're here to stay. How else would we show enthusiasm, whether real or feigned, in all those emails and texts? And how else would we come up with titles for musical comedies? The drab novel Oliver Twist becomes Oliver! Thornton Wilder's lackluster Matchmaker is transformed into Hello Dolly! Dour old King Lear triumphs as Lear! The tragic Anna Karenina lives happily ever after in Anna! Death of a Salesman would be…well you get the point. The Road to Qatar!, a new musical now playing at the York Theater, deserves at least two exclamation points for all the very real energy and enthusiasm it generates. It's a zippy, zany 95 minutes. But whether you love it or hate it will definitely be a matter of personal taste.
The Road to Qatar! takes place in New York City, Dubai, Bratislava, London, Qatar, and, though the program doesn't say so, the Catskills. It's easy to see why composer David Krane and book writer/lyricist Stephen Cole, self-described as "two short Jewish writers," chose a Borscht Belt comic style to tell their true story. Borscht Belt humor has an inherent sense of the absurd, the exaggerated, even the surreal — all of which fit their tale of writing the first American musical to premiere in the Middle East. But it can also be broad and shticky, and rely a LOT on gags, puns and wisecracks, not to mention stereotypes and clichés. (Manipulative, overbearing Jewish mother anyone?) Of course it's fun and ironic to see Mansour, an Egyptian producer, channel Henny Youngman with his line "Everything in Egypt is very old. Especially my wife." Bad dum pum. Rimshot. Think Ishtar: The Musical!
There is a lot to like about The Road to Qatar! The show itself, like Sally Field, really REALLY wants to be liked. The tunes are peppy and melodic and the lyrics are clever and accessible. The production is vivid, colorful, and moves with a brisk precision which is at once slapstick and balletic. Director Phillip George (Forbidden Broadway) knows his comedy both high and low. Bob Richard's choreography is just the right combination of inanity and grace. The set, costume and puppet (yes, puppet) design by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case are ingenious.
The performers are all mega-talented, energetic and committed. James Beaman as Michael remains appealing even while delivering a stream of variably witty one-liners that don't quite add up to a character. Keith Gerchak as Jeffrey has a self-deprecating, Woody Allen-ish charm. The moment when Jeffrey hears his music being played by a 70-piece orchestra is the most truly touching of the evening. It's the "supporting" cast, however, that really lifts the show with their deliciously over-the-top performancs. Bill Nolte's bug-eyed, buffoonish Mansour is funny but also surprisingly believable and endearing. Sarah Stiles is hilarious as Nazirah, the cowering yet coquettish translator who comes alive at Harodds. Bruce Warren gets the biggest laughs with both his arrogant, Ethel Merman-obsessed Farid and his flamboyantly flaming Italian director Claudio. And the voices! The sheer vocal power that these actors produce—without microphones—is astounding. And when the superb five-piece orchestra under the musical direction of David Caldwell lets loose, you'll think you're really hearing those 70 instruments.
I wish that Cole and Krane had probed a bit deeper into the political and emotional aspects of their story. There's one tantalizing number in which the Arabs describe their "don't ask don't tell" policy regarding Jews. But the show is so relentlessly light, snappy and face-front presentational that there's no time for irony, much less satire. Maybe it's just as well. In these hyper-sensitive, politically correct times, it's almost subversive to treat such incendiary issues with superficial comic abandon. Maybe happy musical comedy really can change the world. Martin Luther King Jr. may have had the dream, but it took Mama Rose to sing it.
(The Road to Qatar! plays at the York Theatre at St. Peter's Church, 619 Lexington Avenue, through February 27, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays through Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2:30PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 2:30PM. Tickets are $67.50. For tickets and more information visit www.yorktheatre.org.)