This is a tough review to write because this 90 minute one-act musical comes to the York Theatre from a successful run in Texas. It is in the form of a Crosby-Hope “Road” movie, which is a fine idea because it details the fun its authors Stephen Cole (book and lyrics) and David Krane (music) enjoyed in preparing it. Based on their personal experience of writing a commissioned original musical called Aspire for the Emir of Qatar. They call their show “The Road to Qatar!: A New True Musical Comedy”. Watching the 20 minute video of their experiences in the Middle East, (see below) makes it clear that a fortune was spent on its production values, that it seemingly had a “cast of thousands”, that it played for one night only before a thousand guests in the largest soccer dome in the world in Doha, Qatar. Evidently it was a rousing success there, and the authors returned to America filled with enthusiasm and lots of Qatarian cash. So they decided to write a musical about the writing of Aspire.
At the York Theatre at one of the final previews, Cole and Krane were present as were a large group of their friends and admirers, so the performers were really preaching to the converted. Everything onstage brought “woo woos”, “bravos” and riotous laughter from the crowd. But there were pockets of us, who had little advance knowledge of what we were about to see, who were smiling a lot, but rarely bursting with glee. For The Road to Qatar! is so unpretentiously amiable, it seems merciless to mention that it is sadly lacking in genuine wit or melodic invention.
It tells the tale of “two short Jewish men” who accepted an invitation from a man in Quatar, unknown to them, via an email that said “We want you write musical. How much?” This was addressed to Stephen Cole, who answered: “Call me.” When the call came instantly, he turned the offer over to his agent, and was told that if he were to accept, he would be writing the show with David Krane, whom he didn’t know. Ultimately the two met, they bonded immediately, terms were agreed upon, and off they flew to Qatar to meet with their “producer” (who had never produced a show before). Well, I guess if the price is right – some might ask “why not?” They were given 6 weeks to complete the musical, and they managed to do it in five. They were not invited to participate in any phase of the production, not even the casting sessions, and had no control over who would choreograph, direct or design, but they were given funds to arrange a full orchestration (for seventy instruments!) and they participated in the recording of the complete score in a fine recording studio in Bratislava, Slovakia. Does this not sound like material for the making of a musical about the making of a musical? Well, it did to Cole and Krane, and The Road To Qatar!, which they began writing in 2006, is the sort-of-happy result.
But, alas, though the atmosphere at the preview I attended was ebullient, though the laughter and applause made it all sound like the funniest musical since A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, it seemed to me to be working awfully hard, with only intermittent success, to be just that. But it reminded me more of the sort of musicals they offer on cruise ships, you know the sort in which no one ever stops moving. There’s not a moment to let us catch our breath, to reflect, to absorb, to care. With seventeen musical numbers (including reprises) in 90 minutes, clearly there isn’t much time for more than the sketchiest of characters, and as for plot – well, one minute we’re in New York receiving a phone call, the next we’re in the air, then we’re in Qatar, then we’re in the middle of Aspire, then we’re in London, then New York. And all the time actors are whizzing on and offstage wheeling the scenery on and off with them, zipping in and out of costume. Two actors play Cole and Krane (here called “Michael” and “Jeffrey”,) and the other three play Mansour, Naziriah and Farid three of the Middle East locals, plus dozens of “et als”. As this is an homage to the Hope-Crosby road pictures, Sarah Stiles as “Naziriah” subs for Dorothy Lamour, among many other animated chicks.
The score is amiable too. It’s filled with bouncy tunes which play second fiddle to the light hearted lyrics supplied by Mr. Cole. These are seasoned lightly with wit, but for the most part they are sort of frat house comical. “You must not use Allah” says one of the Arab gents, and the answer from the author is “No. The lyric is A La Mode”. There are lots of inside references to gay icons like Judy Garland , but they only make the show seem more suitable for a Saturday night on Fire Island or maybe a Hasty Pudding Show than a big time off Broadway musical house. Combining the “Road” pictures with Title of Show is not a bad idea, But this one worked too hard at being wacky and irreverent for my taste.
James Beaman and Keith Gerchak as the Authors are talented lads. They can both sing, they move well, they understand knockabout comedy and perform it well. Sarah Stiles is adorable, and gets mileage out of her middle eastern ladies with their impossible accents and bizarre movements, Bill Nolte and Bruce Warren plunge bravely into the world of pie-in-the-face humor, though their Arab men, with their very funny takes on the Arabic language, won’t do much to ease the tension between East and West in these difficult days. I think the authors are trying to tell us that Arab and Jew are fundamentally the same. In this musical, that just ain’t so.
They are both crude, that’s true, but in very different ways. And under the direction of Phillip George and the choreography of Bob Richard (which, as I’ve said, never stops) it seemed to me everyone was playing with an “Are we not HILARIOUS?” kind of attitude, and I had to answer: “Only occasionally.”
If you want something easy to digest (though it might offend some), sort of like jello or chicken soup, The Road to Qatar might well serve.
Click here to watch the 20 minute video of the making of Aspire, and read the interview with the creators by Joel Markowitz.