You know how some musicals just click? How through some weird alchemy of theater, even a cliché score and a sappy plot can transport you into an enchanting world where it seems perfectly natural for people to sing and dance their way through life? Secondhand Lions isn’t one of those shows.
Nothing quite works for this world-premiere musical at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. From its disjointed flashback-within-a-flashback narrative to its odd mix of forgettable pop ballads and run-of-the-mill genre numbers, Secondhand Lions is a bit of a mess from start to finish.
Based on the 2003 family film of the same name, its plot is one of those well-worn explorations of fact versus fiction, and whether it matters. Eleven-year-old Walter (ably played by a strong-voiced Johnny Rabe) is dumped off for the summer in rural Texas with his two irascible old uncles who proceed to usher him into manhood via tall tales of their past exploits. At least, I think that’s what the show is about. The scattershot book by Rupert Holmes—The Mystery of Edwin Drood and, oddly, “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”—seems to presume we’ve all seen the film. I haven’t.
While Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner’s lyrics are often clever, they’re rarely funny; there’s no real low point in the score, but their best songs might make for a middling moment in a much better musical. The talented, Broadway-quality cast does its best to pump up the energy—for example, Kendra Kassebaum’s reach-for-the-balcony performance as Walter’s floozy mom, Mae—but given the underwhelming material, they just come off as loud.
There’s nothing particularly awful about Secondhand Lions. It’s as well produced as any 5th Avenue show. But it just doesn’t work.