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Paulanne Simmons

Love and Laughter in the Graveyard

A Fine & Private Place -- Photo by Carol Rosegg.

"A Fine & Private Place"
Directed by Gabriel Barre
York Theatre Company
Saint Peter's Theatre
Citigroup Center
54th St. just east of Lexington
Opened April 27, 2006
Mon., Wed. thru Sat. 8 p.m., Wed. & Sat. 2:30 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m.
$50 (212) 868-4444 or Smarttix.com
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons April 29, 2006

The titular fine and private place in Erik Haagensen and Richard Isen's musical premiering at York Theatre Company's home in St. Peter's at Citigroup Center is the imaginary Yorkchester Cemetery in the North Bronx. Peter S. Beagle, who wrote the novel the musical is based on, was inspired by the very real Woodlawn Cemetery, which was just a few blocks from his childhood home.

It is in this cemetery that the recently deceased Michael Morgan (Glenn Steven Allen), a former novelist and teacher, meets Laura Durand (Christine Noll), a woman who died young and loveless. Michael needs Laura to help him keep in touch with the world of the living, which he's not ready to give up. But much to his, if no one else's, surprise, instead of mere companionship he gets love.

The other couple who meet at Westchester Cemetery is Jonathan Rebeck (Joseph Kolinski) and Gertrude Clapper (the tremendous Evalyn Baron, who originated the role at the Goodspeed Opera House). Rebeck makes his home in one of the mausoleums and has an uncanny ability to communicate with the dead. Clapper is an aging Jewish widow who comes to the cemetery to visit her beloved Morris, whose remains are in a mausoleum not far from Rebeck's.

Jonathan's friend and confident is the wisecracking Raven (Gabriel Barre, who doubles as the show's director and does an admirable job in both undertakings). Raven brings Rebeck stolen food from places like McDonald's and Dukin' Donuts. He doesn’t approve of Rebeck's new relationship but can do nothing against the Widow Clapper's charm, home-cooked meals and Yiddish warmth.

Rebeck find's himself painfully and awkwardly abandoning his reclusive existence. As Michael becomes dependent on Laura, so he comes to relie on Clapper's frequent visits.

Despite the unusual nature of these couples, "A Fine & Private Place" is not much different from more traditional musicals like Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows' "Guys and Dolls." Erik Haagensen provides witty dialogue and clever lyrics that advance the plot and call forth all the proper emotions: "When there's only two, it's love that makes the glue," "Love doesn't always carry you over fear."

The only difference is that composer Richard Isen is no Frank Loesser. Even those who do not necessarily need to leave the theater with a song to hum will find this score lacking. True, "Much More Alive" has some of the lyricism love songs need, and "The Telepathetique" is a spirited tango, but most of the songs have a monotonous similarity.

Fortunately, Kolinski, Allen, Noll and Baron all have terrific voices that go a long way toward making up for the faults in the material. Barre, whose most recent directorial credit is "Almost Maine," another romantic fantasy, does an impressive job staging complicated scene's where the couples sing together and with each other. And scenic designer James Morgan uses drapes, lighting and sound effects to create an otherworldly cemetery that could be easily confused with heaven.

Frank Loessers are born only once or twice in a decade. Until another genius comes along, "A Fine & Private Place" is a worthy alternative.

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