Frisky “Pool Boy” tries hard to please at Barrington Stage

Jay Armstrong Johnson and Cortney Wolfson in Pool Boy, Photo Kevin Sprague.

Everyone wants the Pool Boy, it’s a classic set up. And the Pool Boy wants to please, pamper or placate everyone. From this premise, comes a rollicking musical that has the potential to be the hottest show since Spring Awakening.

As William Finn, director of the Musical Theatre Lab for Barrington Stage Company (BSC) says in his program note: “It is our aim to introduce new, untested writers first to Pittsfield, and then to the world.”

Well hello pool boy, you’re on your way! It’s a damn good show, though not quite ready for Broadway. For that it needs more polishing and perfecting and perhaps a few million dollars. But for a first full production in a modest Stage 2 setting , it is further along than musicals that have been on the road for months. It’s simply delightful, and very adult.. Witty lyrics, a couple of bare chests and breasts, this show already has most of the key pieces in place. It’s may not be for children, but like it or not, your teens are going to want to see it. Nick the pool boy and April his love are quite the couple.

Bill Finn has quite a find in  Nikos Tsakalakos and Janet Allard. They wrote the music, lyrics and book.  By bringing them together, Finn may have created  the millennium generation’s version of Comden and Green. Nick and Janet are also  masters of the topical lyric, with a twist of the vernacular. This creative duo has overcome the novice songwriters problem of everything sounding similar, or trying to fit too many words into too few notes. Listening to the songs you can tell that a lot of pruning has already taken place. There is a sophistication in several of the lyrics that somehow reminded me of Cole Porter, like these from “Live it Up”.

You won’t be this young forever
Make it your best summer ever
Take it from a guy
Who’s never gonna die

Not a moment should be wasted
Try the things you haven’t tasted
Savor every bite
A different flavor every night

Even in your prime
You don’t have much time

So live it up, live it up
You gotta live it up
While you’re young.

The story is, of course, about Nick the pool boy (Jay Armstrong Johnson) who is new on the job,. He is under the harsh scrutiny of Mr. Lopes (Cliff Bemis) the manager who is watching his every move. He is pretty naive and does his best to mollify the finicky guests and their endless needs, gustatory, egoistic, and carnal, They include Mr. & Mrs. Duval (John Hickok and Sarah Gettelfinger) and The Sultan of Nubai (Sorab Wadia).

Into this privileged group enters April (Cortney Wolfson) who falls for Nick, and vice versa.

Jay Armstrong Johnson

Early in the show Nick fantasizes about April in the song, “She Swims” which is accompanied by a backlit image of the pool and April in a lovely fantasy sequence. While the effect is quite stunning, the mingling of their two voices is totally mesmerizing. Johnson’s voice is earnest and youthful, while Wolfson’s has a sweet clarion sound with just a bit of edginess. Together they blended into something that simply sounded like love. They also did the song “Background” together. Towards the end of the first act they again share a duet, “I’ve Never Felt This Before”.

There’s one or two songs too many in the latter part of the first act, and as lovely as the April-Nick duets are, one of the three could be eliminated in the interests of keeping the pacing up and making sure they can do eight performances a week. The role of Nick, especially, includes him in a full two thirds of all the songs.

Cortney Wolfson.

Some dialogue might also be introduced to make real their early feelings for each other. Much of the action on stage consists of moving towards and away from seductions and manipulations. There wasn’t much depth to their claimed feelings. While the lyrics did a pretty good job on the conflicts, but you never really felt the pain, the disappointment of Nick and April, just the embarrassment and apologies.

“In the Muck,” the song that opens Act II uses adult language and it is a gem. Starting as a duet, then quickly becoming a quintet and then septet, it is as close to a fugue as you get in the theatre these days. Wonderful, wonderful, kudos to all. Brilliantly staged, sung and acted.

The second act also finds Nick serving the Sultan who is now dating his lovely April. In that scene, Nick ends up playing a marimba to entertain them. Really. It is a surprising moment, one of many as the musical wends its way to its finale with present day Nick singing in a club about the songs he made from his experiences at the Hotel Bel Air. Nice twist.

Jay Armstrong Johnson and Sara Gettelfinger. Photos by Kevin Sprague.

The direction of Pool Boy by Daniella Topol was masterful, with virtually nonstop action from beginning to end, no dead spots, a sure winner for short attention span audiences. The music direction by Matt Castle was the best ever heard at Stage 2. The piano sounded great and was supplemented by a guitar and hand percussion. The orchestrations were masterful. In addition to Castle, Mike Pettry is credited as the other musician presumably on guitar, but who was playing what is not clear in the program.

Brian Prather’s set was clever, with the suggestion of pool tiles, several archways, and two sliding shoji screens doing the bulk of the work. The lighting by Nicole Pearce created both the shimmering water effect and the palm trees that made everything feel real. The costumes by Holly Cain were well chosen for the most part.

Pool Boy had a reading last summer and the writers have met off and on over the past year to work on the book, lyrics and music. Everyone came together just a few weeks ago to iron out the kinks, and during the rehearsal process, songs have been added and dropped, scenes changed, and finally previewed by audiences before last night’s opening. Yet this can not be considered a finished product by any means. It has good bones, great bones, and still needs a little more TLC to be ready for the bright lights beyond Barrington Stage Company.

Getting Pool Boy ready for its first full production was a gargantuan task. But its voyage from page to stage is far from done.

So watch out New York, this show is destined for the big apple, but for now – unless you make the trek to Pittsfield – you’ll just have to wait it out.

Barrington Stage Company presents Pool Boy, Music and Lyrics by Nikos Tsakalakos, Book and Lyrics by Janet Allard, Directed by Daniella Topol, Musical Theatre Lab Artistic Producer William Finn. Cast: Mr. Lopes – Cliff Bemis, Donna Duval – Sara Gettelfinger, Rodney Duval – John Hickock, Nick – Jay Armstrong Johnson, Jack – Jon Norman Scheider, The Sultan of Nubai – Sorab Wadia, April – Cortney Wolfson. Two hours including a 15 minute intermission. July 13-August 8, 2010. At Stage 2 on Linden Street, Pittsfield. Information:  www.barringtonstageco.org

One thought on “Frisky “Pool Boy” tries hard to please at Barrington Stage

  1. I saw Pool Boy Thursday night and loved it! It the lyrics were witty the songs were upbeat, the voices superb. I think it is well on it’s way to becoming a great hit on Broadway.

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