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Off-Off-Broadway Review

Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical

"Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical" has been kicking around for some 30 years, and even back in 1980, according to a recent Peter Filichia article on Theatermania.com, it was considered too retro to live. Which is to say it's solidly constructed, tuneful, and consistently diverting. "Shine!" is plenty rough around the edges and would benefit from one more rewrite. But for much of its two hours and 20 minutes, it plays like a traditional Golden Age musical—something you won't see a lot of in this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival.

Most such musicals, any historian will tell you, begin with a strong hero who wants something badly. Book writer Richard Seff chooses well there: Ragged Dick (Andy Mientus), the hero of the fabled Horatio Alger books, is young, hard-working, and ambitious (50 years ago, Robert Morse would have played him). Seff plunks him down in a wonderfully detailed, accurate vision of 1876 New York. Starting out as a bootblack, our hero acquires a sidekick (Dan Lawler) and quickly rises to haberdashery office boy, store manager, and paid companion to the son of a Wall Street higher-up (Philip Chaffin). True to musical comedy form, something calamitous happens just before the Act 1 curtain, involving Gerrish, Dick's lowlife stepfather (Michael Halling, who growls menacingly and sings gorgeously), and Stacia, Gerrish's ballad-reprising ladylove (Meggie Cansler). The resolution to the crisis is never really in doubt, and though Seff introduces some pretty unlikely plot turns, there's a happy, satisfying finale, with principals and chorus celebrating the high-toned new world described in "North of 14th Street."

That's a catchy one, and so is the Act 1 closer, the title song, and a pointless but lively drinking chorus for the Irishwomen of Dick's downtown neighborhood. Roger Anderson's music adroitly follows all the rules of classic score writing, with appropriate reprises and shifts of mood. Lee Goldsmith's lyrics contain few surprises, but they're exceptionally neat, and he comes up with two good comedy numbers for Dick's nosy landlady and his jealous co-workers. If there were a cast album, I'd buy it.

Seff still has some nips and tucks to take care of, however. Horatio Alger's hero was entirely trustworthy and honest. Seff's version is a bit of a hustler, gilding the truth to get ahead (as a newsboy, he invented fake headlines to sell papers), which makes him less likable. Stacia is supposed to be a heroine; why does she, however briefly, assist the villain in a dirty kidnapping scheme? (All right, she loves him, but even that's far-fetched as now written.) Finally, Seff could come up with a few fresher jokes. About the best he can do is "Have you ever worked in haberdashery?" "No, sir, I've never been to New Jersey."

Ragged Dick should have loads of natural charm; Mientus, from where I sit, doesn't, and he falls flat on his high notes. Most of the other vocalists are fine, and Jimmy Ray Bennett, as a petty colleague, not only sings well but can pull a laugh out of nothing. A cast of 19 is efficiently directed by Peter Flynn, and musical director Annbritt duChateau makes the waltzes, polkas, and ragtime sound like vintage show music. One hopes "Shine!" solves its small problems in casting and narrative, because it's awfully close to the sort of musical that made the form nationally beloved in the Rodgers and Hammerstein era.



Presented by Other Side Productions as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival at the Theater at St. Clements, 423 W. 46th St., NYC. Oct. 7-17. Remaining performances: Fri., Oct. 15, 1 p.m.; Sat., Oct. 16, 9 p.m.; Sun., Oct. 17, 3 p.m. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, or www.nymf.org. Casting by Laura Stanczyk.

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