As you might guess from the title of the musical “The Evolution of (Henry) Mann” — which the American Theater Group is currently presenting at the Fellowship Cultural Arts Center in Basking Ridge — Henry is an everyman type of character. He’s a nice guy, but unlucky in love. He’s talented, but an underachiever. He’s riddled by self-doubt but also buoyed by grandiose fantasies, just like … maybe not every man, but a lot of us.
An utterly charming musical that ran Off-Broadway in 2018 and is ably directed here by Jason Aguirre, “The Evolution of (Henry) Mann” follows the 30-something Henry (played by Ryan Gregory Thurman) as he tries to get his love life together, following a broken engagement to Sheila (Bebe Browning). He has endured months of going to weddings, alone. Stung by his friends’ happiness, he is desperate to find a dazzling date to bring to Sheila’s wedding to someone else (to which he has been invited).
Enter Ginger and Mary Ann … uh, make that Tamar and Christine (both played by Browning). Tamar is exciting and vixenish but may not be over her ex; Christine is sweet and down-to-earth but also a little mousy. Henry meets both, almost simultaneously, and has promising first dates with them. He quickly becomes infatuated with Tamar, though, and brushes off Christine, much to the consternation of his smart, funny roommate Gwen (Shani Hadjian) and his loving but nagging mother (also played by Hadjian). Will he figure out he made the wrong choice before Christine fades out of his life completely?
I know, I know. This all sounds a bit predictable and sitcom-like. (I even thought of “Seinfeld” during “What’s the Catch,” a song about focusing on a potential romantic partner’s flaws). But book writer Dan Elish and composer Douglas J. Cohen (who wrote the lyrics together) manage to transcend the mundane, mainly by writing a bunch of first-rate songs that are both catchy and clever. They are more than strong enough to hold your attention on their own.
Elish and Cohen do bittersweet well: Songs like “It’s Only a First Date,” “Low Expectations” and “The Unromantic Things” find the characters facing the challenges of finding love with longing but also wry humor.
Also, Elish adds a bit of dramatic weight with a subplot: While Henry reacts to his tribulations mainly by moping around, Gwen is recently separated from her wife and truly torn up by it, and hits a more dramatic rock bottom than the eternally striving-to-be-upbeat Henry does.
Elish throws some entertaining wild cards into the mix, too, like a sequence showing a bit of “The Green Light,” a musical that aspiring writer Henry is working on. He wants to bring “The Great Gatsby” to the stage, with songs; Tamar encourages him to set it in outer space, and that’s what “The Green Light,” in all its misguided glory, is.
There are only three actors, with Hadjian and Browning playing some additional small roles in addition to the ones already mentioned. Pianist/conductor Emily Cohn, guitarist Meghan Doyle and cellist Katie Chambers are visible behind the actors.
It’s an unassuming but well executed production, and that’s perfectly appropriate for this unassuming but well crafted musical.
The American Theater Group will present “The Evolution of (Henry) Mann” at the Fellowship Cultural Arts Center in Basking Ridge through Oct. 24. Visit americantheatergroup.org.
There will also be a streaming option for the 7:30 p.m. Oct. 23 performance. Visit atg.booktix.com.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.