Five Course Love
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
October 10, 2005
In Five Course Love, Gregg Coffin’s light and campy musical comedy, we get an evening that is more than entertaining—it’s a ton of fun. The spotlight shines on Coffin’s lyrics and music, with kudos going to the three actors who sparkle in all 15 roles. The biggest star, however, is Emma Griffin, who directs with near perfection. In Five Course Love, Coffin gives us five simple love stories, each with a different twist and in a different restaurant: Texas barbecue, Italian trattoria, German cabaret, Mexican cantina, and diner. The set stays the same while the actors rip through costume changes and bolt through songs that reflect the different cuisines—all with appropriate accents and at 120 miles an hour.
The evening kicks off at a Texas BBQ restaurant where Matt, simple and clueless, meets hot, buxom Barbie. All goes swimmingly until she finds out his name is not Ken. Rejected, he leaves, and after a quick costume change, we find ourselves at a trattoria, where Gino and Sophia are meeting for a tryst. Three musical numbers later, the Mafia don, also Sophia’s husband, shows up for the denouement. At the cabaret, Gretchen, the German dominatrix, flicks her crop in Kurt Weill-style until she drives her lover, Klaus, into the hands of the available waiter, Heimlich. In the cantina, Guillermo and Ernesto vie for the heart of Rosalinda. Love is no less present at the diner, where the waitress Kitty pines in vain for the brawy, brainless greaser, Clutch. But, this is not about plot, remember? The story is a vehicle for Coffin’s real strength—lyrics and music—and he delivers a trunk load of campy humor, because in Five Course Love the right people have come together to make it work. Griffin’s fine direction gives it gratifying polish.
She takes nothing for granted, demanding accelerated pace, volcanic energy, and precision from start to finish. She knows how to use broad gestures and pushes a little further than expected for well-deserved laughs. She extracts impeccable timing from the cast, reducing the most jaded to downright giggles. Jeff Gurner, as the feisty, intrusive owner/waiter at Dean’s Old-Fashioned All-American Down-Home Bar-B-Que Texas Eats fills the stage with personality and lassos the audience early on. Gurner is exquisitely nimble with props, particularly in the bar-b-que vignette. Heather Ayers tarts it up as Barbie, and John Bolton’s Matt, who cannot believe his good fortune, joins her in the invigorating musical number, “Jumpin’ the Gun.” The campy rejection comes a moment later when Ayers delivers a hilarious, deep-throated, Nashville-type ballad of “I Loved You When I Thought Your Name Was Ken.”
Ayers and Bolton play all the romantic leads and Jeff Gurner captures the essence of what it is like to be a waiter in each of the five establishments, abetting and aborting love. It is not only the crisp direction and excellent performances of these three actors, or the romp of Coffin’s music/lyrics. Mindy Cooper delivers inventive choreography that keeps the actors on their toes. All this energy radiates into the audience for 80 minutes of fun.
Quick changes find Ayers’ and Bolton’s characters, Gino and Sophia, entwined at an Italian trattoria reflecting operatically “If Nicky Knew.” Although the vignette predictably winds up with “Nicky Knows,” it is how they get there that matters; Gurner’s Carlo, the enabler and rat, is there at the right moments, and the three of them use their props to good effect.
Southern, Italian, German, and Mexican accents are used where appropriate. While they enhance the performance considerably and seem authentic, they should never obscure the lyrics. This is what happened in the German cabaret vignette, making it the least successful of the five sketches. Ayers delivered “No Is a Word I Don’t Fear” with confident strut, but I really wanted to hear the words, too. At the Mexican cantina, Guillermo and Ernesto vie for the heart of Rosalinda in a witty, melodramatic duet called "Pick Me." Gurner and Bolton, with the help of Cooper’s choreography, make this one of the stand out numbers of the evening. In an unscripted moment at the performance reviewed, Bolton lost his mustache, and, professional that he is, remained in character with his forefinger above his lip, providing an unexpected comic bonus for the audience.
Meanwhile, at The Star-Lite Diner, Kitty, the geeky waitress, soaks up romance novels—all the love stories we have just witnessed—while she delivers her anonymous love letter to the illiterate Clutch. He, of course, doesn’t get it and leaves her heartbroken. But don't worry, the eveing ends on a high note that brings the show full circle.
Hats off to Bettie O. Rogers for hair design and to G. W. Mercier for his whimsical costumes. Of particular note are the masked man’s costume, Rosalinda’s flouncy ensemble in the cantina number, and Gretchen’s raincoat in the cabaret. Mercier's workable sets are unobtrusive, save a mark of kitsch for the arch outlining the proscenium where knives, forks, and spoons playfully splay on a mirror. A four-piece band under the direction of Fred Tessler sits visibly above the stage donning toques. And, two offstage singers, Erin Maguire and Billy Sharpe, offer depth where needed. Lighting and sound are by Mark Barton and Robert Kaplowitz, respectively.
It would not be difficult to imagine Coffin teaming up with someone who is strong in book, freeing him to compose and write a full length musical, although Five Course Love is more than a pleasing hors d’oeuvre. The excellent actors offer delightful campy performances, drawing well-earned laughs. Add intelligent lyrics, appealing music, clever choreography, and energy—what’s not to love?