The Manatee Players take on a challenge with the world premiere, Best Seller!
By Kay Kipling
The idea of a community theater staging a brand-new musical is one that can cause a critic (and, obviously, the theater itself) some trepidation. So it was with a sigh of relief that I watched the Manatee Players’ current production of Best Seller!, with book, music and lyrics by local playwright Don Crabb, and realized that it was not going to be dreadful.
In fact, it was kind of fun, in a comfortably old-fashioned, familiar sort of way, for much of the ride. Crabb’s story fits into the slot of the New York musical, a little like such hits as Wonderful Town (and in fact, the characters and situations in Best Seller! might feel more at home in a 1950s setting, say, than in today’s, where they’re placed).
Those characters include the publisher of a small, struggling Manhattan publishing company (Steve Dawson), who thinks he’s going to make it big with his newest book, a self-help tome by a husband-and-wife counseling team (Howard Jackson and Meg Newsome). Publisher Larry has a supportive staff, the legacy of his late father to fulfill, and soon, a romantic interest in the person of Dr. Shani Harris (Dianne Dawson), whom the female counselor wants to vet her book for scientific accuracy. In the longstanding tradition of romantic musical comedies, Larry and Shani start out as antagonists, but there’s no doubt in our minds where they’ll end up.
Working with no real blueprint, since it’s a premiere, director-choreographer Bob Trisolini does a mostly successful job in staging the action; and he has a good mix of song types to work with, from ballads (Simple Words) to rousers (The Lord and Jerry Lee) to just fun numbers (It Couldn’t Have Happened to a Nicer Guy, Joe Waller Socks). There are implausibilities in the storyline, some character development is lacking, and on opening night there were bumps in the production with missed lines and occasional sloppiness in execution. And Jackson’s work as the male half of the self-help team, undergoing a late middle-aged crisis, is too over the top for me.
But there is a sort of sweetness to Best Seller!, and I have a feeling that as the cast has eased into the run, things are probably going more smoothly. Best Seller! continues at the Manatee Players Riverfront Theatre through March 16; go to manateeplayers.com or call 748-5875 for ticket info.