Wednesday, May 16, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Nobody Loves You" at The Old Globe

Keeping It Real:
The Old Globe’s “Nobody Loves You” a mostly cute and clever contemporary musical comedy

By Donnie Matsuda

As one of the contestants on the faux-reality TV dating show “Nobody Loves You” quips: “You can either perform or connect, but you can’t do both.”

That’s an honest observation that holds true for the Old Globe’s world premiere musical of the same title, a pop-rock flavored burst of musical exuberance set in the world of reality television as its sleazy cast of characters tries to find love (or at least a good lay) all while the cameras are rolling.  It’s an homage to the tried and true dating shows that have tainted the tube ever since The Dating Game premiered in 1965 as America has become fascinated by watching real people compete to find “true love” and “romance” in front of a national audience.  Over time, such dating shows have become less about happily-ever-after and more about happily-after-ratings, as producers have shamelessly relied more and more on voyeurism, exploitation, and cheap tricks to achieve their outrageous goals.  So now, it is probably no surprise that the reality TV watching phenomenon has slithered its way into the musical theatre genre with the Globe’s newest musical, Nobody Loves You, playing now though June 17 in the intimate Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. 

(L to R) Heath Calvert as Byron, Adam Kantor as Jeff, and Nicole Lewis as Nina in the world premiere of "Nobody Loves You" at The Old Globe.  Photo by Henry DiRocco.
The musical – with a sassy book by Itamar Moses, a pop score by Gaby Alter, and lyrics by both - is everything you could possibly want in a reality-inspired, social-media savvy piece of theatre.  In it, a bookish and highly analytical philosophy student named Jeff (a clean-cut, silky voiced Adam Kantor) tries to win back his ex-girlfriend (a spunky Nicole Lewis) by chasing her onto a reality TV series in which highly attractive, sex-crazed twentysomethings must pair up and “fall in love” (i.e. make out gratuitously for the cameras) or be sent packing.  The problem is his ex-girlfriend doesn’t make the casting cut but he does, and he’s forced to participate in the awful antics and sitcom-style shenanigans he totally despises.  As we learn from his own on-camera confessionals, his plan is to turn his experience on the show into a research experiment in which he exposes its overly contrived nature from within.  But as fate would have it (or perhaps because this put-upon reality show must have a love story to ground it), he falls for the show’s production assistant Jenny (a frumpy and fantastic Jenni Barber) and they abruptly espouse their “real” love for each other in the show’s final ten minutes.  Cue finale.  Run end credits.

Jenni Barber as Jenny and Adam Kantor as Jeff.  Photo by Henry DiRocco.
From start to finish, Nobody Loves You (or “NLY” as show groupies call it) gives off a very fake and superficial vibe.  Actually, that’s pretty much the whole point of a musical that exists to make a mockery of the very insipid institution it embodies.  We’re supposed to laugh at the vapid and ruthlessly shallow antics of the show’s host Byron (a slick and smooth voiced Heath Calvert) as he leads his gyrating, spandex-clad backup dancers in the show’s high-energy opening number, “Which Love is for Real.”  And as we’re introduced to the full cast via their tacky yet traditional on-camera confessionals in the musical number titled, you guessed it, “Confessional,” we meet Megan (a seductive Lauren Molina) who drinks till she blacks out and sleeps around most weekend nights, Christian (an upstanding Kelsey Kurz) who much like his name is an uptight religious fanatic who wants to play it “cool” for his “fans,” Samantha (a sassy Kate Morgan Chadwick) who wonders why the guys never stay with her for long, and Dominic (a Jersey Shore-ified Alex Brightman) who…well…’nuff said.   And then there’s Jeff who isn’t so much actively competing on the show as he is smarmily commenting on it in his own utterly urbane and overly academic way.  Taken together, it’s quite a motley crew of messed up fame whores, but isn’t that part of the fun – and intrigue - of reality TV?  
As these dim-wits fall in and out of “love” during the two hour long intermission-free musical, the full cast frequently gets to show off their sure-fire acting and singing chops.  And despite it all, there’s not a lot to grab onto as they babble about how they feel (“I Just Wanna Be Loved”) or why their lives suck (“The Obstacle Course of Love”) or what they want to do in the hot tub (“Come On In”/”You Let Me In”).  The nineteen songs in the show all carry the same generic pop-rock sound to them and the lyrics (while at times clever and funny) try to be a lot more serious and profound than they really are.  For instance, the following snippet from “I Just Wanna Be Loved” is pretty much representative of all the songs in the lengthy and monotonous score: “My heart is in chains I need someone to free it/The love of my life I need someone to be it/And when they do I need the whole world to see it/Oh, oh oh oh I just wanna be loved.”  

Lauren Molina as Megan (background) and Kate Morgan Chadwick as Samantha (foreground).  Photo by Henry DiRocco.
The one exception comes in the form of the show’s most hilarious number, “The Twitter Song,” delivered with power and pizzazz by NLY’s most fun, flamboyant, and faithful viewer, Evan (perhaps the ultimate tube-tied social media maven who religiously watches and tweets from his couch).  Filled with cute lyrical riffs involving hashtags, commas, and emoticons, the song provides some much needed exuberance at the show’s halfway point and does the trick in getting the audience re-engaged in (and dare I say, all a twitter about) the latest drama on the game show set. 

While there aren’t many breakthrough songs or remarkably moving moments in this musical (itself a winner of the prestigious Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award), director Michelle Tattenbaum does what she can to take a number of flighty, superficial elements and craft them into a somewhat cohesive whole.  Overall, she does an excellent job of keeping the flimsy scenes moving along at a brisk pace and weaves them as best she can into the generic yet serviceable score.  To her credit, her slick reality-show-within-a-show vision is appropriate for a musical of this size and small scope and she conveys her message without the use of any TV, video, or multimedia projections.  Meanwhile, choreographer Mandy Moore (of TV’s So You Think You Can Dance fame) works her magic in the incredibly intimate confines of the Globe’s compact, arena-style theatre, consistently giving an edgy, contemporary flair to the proceedings.

The company of "Nobody Loves You."  Photo by Henry DiRocco.
The technical elements of the show are absolutely first rate and frequently re-create the look and feel of the TV show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.  Michael Schweikardt’s set truly transforms the intimate space into a sleek game show set with its slick parquet floors, lit-from-below colored tiles, and a central circular platform that rises up for special occasions (and by “special” I mean such significant, life-altering moments as crush ceremonies and confessionals).  Tyler Micoleau’s bright neon lighting and Emily Pepper’s contemporary costume designs add an edgy rock vibe that is further enhanced by Vadim Feichtner’s outstanding five piece electric band.

So, getting back to that contestant’s comment about having to either perform or connect (and not both) on unscripted TV shows.  It is probably no surprise that Nobody Loves You is chock full of professional-grade performances delivered with plenty of panache by a uniformly game cast.  But what is sorely lacking here is a connection of any kind.  As a musical that prides itself on being “real,” Nobody Loves You keeps to today’s superficial standard, which means it doesn’t delve very deep or leave any sort of lasting impression on the viewer.  Instead, it comes and goes with the click of a remote and throws out enough drama and deviant personalities in the hopes that it will somehow be renewed for a second season, or better yet, get its own reality spin off show.

Whether or not this particular musical will have such long-term success is uncertain (and highly unlikely).  But one thing’s for sure: regardless of its contrived plotlines, outrageous personalities, and need for major streamlining, we’ll still keep watching.

Things to know before you go: Nobody Loves You plays at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at The Old Globe through June 17, 2012.  Running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes without an intermission.  Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 23-GLOBE or visit

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