“American Idiot” notwithstanding, addiction generally isn’t a dominant theme in musical theater. Alcoholism defined by loss and relapse rather than recovery doesn’t lend itself to a genre typically punctuated by snazzy dance numbers that culminate in a happy ending. But Marriott Theatre’s “Darling Grenadine” — bound for New York City’s Roundabout Theatre in 2020 — isn’t your typical musical.
Instead, Daniel Zaitchik (book, music, lyrics) has created a love story that’s more rue than roses, told by a cast of seven (including a puppeteer) and a chamber orchestra of the same size. Where many musicals traffic in spectacle, “Grenadine” delivers 100-proof messiness rooted in real life. As much as jingle composer Harry (Heath Saunders) loves Broadway actor Louise (Katherine Thomas), no one can truly compete with his true love, the bottle.
Whether this broken romance will sell tickets remains to be seen. “Darling Grenadine” premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House in 2017, but has been reworked since and will likely be further changed before it tries to take Manhattan. But you can’t deny the appeal of Zaitchik’s score or his ability to take ordinary moments and stage them in a way that’s memorable and/or instantly recognizable.
The closest “Darling Grenadine” gets to splashy spectacle is that puppet — a marionette dog created by Huber Marionettes and manipulated to adorably lifelike effect by Phillip Huber. There are no special effects. There are no big dance numbers. Theresa Ham’s costumes look like the everyday garb you’d see (and quickly forget) walking through the weekday Loop.
Then there’s this: The primary obstacle mucking up the romance between Harry and Louise is Harry’s smug certainty that his love affair with booze doesn’t impact his career or the people he loves. It does, of course. Not with the melodramatic sturm-und-drang of a drama like “Days of Wine and Roses” but with the day-to-day, incremental unraveling of the fabric of Harry’s life.
Director Aaron Thielen mines intensity from the deceptively mundane moments of Zaitchik’s script. As in real life, incidents that feel forgettable and ordinary when they occur take on larger significance as time passes. Zaitchik gives the audience the gift of retrospect, allowing it to see how Harry’s small, seemingly inconsequential missteps accrue weight enough to shatter him both personally and professionally.
Zaitchik’s score ranges from charming crooning (“Swell”) to fizzy joy (“Grenadine”) to abject yearning (“The Kettle Song”). Music director Ryan T. Nelson’s small orchestra (conducted by keyboardist Patti Garwood) make the intricate harmonies sound effortless.
Thomas has a voice that could compete with a cathedral organ, and gets to show it off with the barn-burner “Suspended.” Saunders evokes the spirit of Gene Kelly with his easy, debonair grace and smooth vocals, even when Harry is hurting and especially when he’s wordlessly riffing with Mike Nappi’s wandering minstrel trumpet player.
Zaitchik’s book and lyrics make sure we see Harry’s demons as they plant their insidious flags on his pyre of self-destruction. He misses deadlines. He meddles where he should not. He carries a flask that serves as literal body armor over his heart and as metaphoric armor shielding the same. He’s an unreliable narrator, impressing Louise with tales that might be lies.
Fact-checking comes from Harry’s non-canine best friend (Nick Cosgrove). Paul puts Harry’s denial in sharp relief, nailing the frustration and the rage that comes from caring about someone who refers to potentially life-wrecking bouts with alcoholism as “hiccups.”
Speaking of which: Harry’s initial courtship of Louise is largely conflict-free, which makes the first act feel like it’s spinning its wheels while it waits for the drama to kick in. Harry drinks, feels guilty about it and drinks some more. His default setting is unchangingly blithe, even when sadness gives it a patina of guilt. That stasis means that “Darling Grenadine” is more like a flatline than a gratifying dramatic arc. Fine as it is, the score doesn’t change that.
Finally, there’s the matter of the Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set design. It features dozens of flat screens suspended above the in-the-round stage. Media designer Anthony Churchill fills them with projections of New York skylines, bar interiors and other visual cues. But the scaffolding framing portions of the stage put much of the Marriott audience in obstructed viewing areas.
There’s no question but that Saunders and Thomas have charisma, chemistry and vocal wherewithal to spare. If Zaitchik can give “Darling Grenadine” more of a narrative arc, it could go down as easy as the titular mixer.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.