Martha & Me
nytheatre.com review by Joe LaRue
August 15, 2004
The mere words “Martha Stewart” and “musical” are enough to pique an audience’s curiosity, as evidenced by the already sold-out run of Martha & Me: A Musical. While overlong, the show features a talented cast, witty songs, and a simplistic but cute story.
Rather than deal with Martha herself, the writers (book by Sunny Dahlia Turner, music and lyrics by Robert Rokicki) instead focus on one woman’s obsession with Martha, and how that obsession wreaks havoc on a family who just wants to eat something on Thanksgiving. We get the standard family: son home from college with a “big secret,” crotchety old uncle, outsider teenage sibling, and dad who just wants to watch football. Add into the mix the neighbor kids and a black couple who seem tossed in only to punctuate a couple second act jokes.
As Betsey, Jennifer Allen finds endless comic variety in her nearly psychotic portrayal of a mother whose only source of stability is Martha’s enduring guidance. Allen has a stellar voice, and begins the show on the perfect note as she asks Martha to bless the potatoes that will be mashed into her Thanksgiving dinner.
The press notes bill the show as “a dark satire,” but only Allen’s performance matches that description. She is so strong in her comic mania that the other actors do not seem to be in the same play—they flit about her in what amounts to a domestic sitcom’s “very special episode.” Perhaps with stronger choices, director Adam Levi could have infused the show with a clearer tone.
Martha & Me provides only enough engaging material to warrant a one-act chamber piece. The second act loses its focus on Betsey in order to give each of the dinner guests their own song. While each song is tuneful and well sung, especially those performed by Bobbi Owens and Eric Millegan, they take us away from the core of the story. The best songs are those that tap into and skewer our fascination with the Cult of Martha. Allen provides a comic powerhouse finish in which she wails “Where are you now, Martha?” It is a moment that nearly restores the evening’s previous meanderings.