According to the publicity flyer for Unbeatable! — the new musical on view at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza through most of November — this story about the journey of a woman with stage-three breast cancer is "ground-breaking, seamless, poignant, energetic, dazzling, incredible and powerful." And that's just in the first sentence. If this show has nothing else, it's got chutzpah. But of course you can't always believe what you read in publicity flyers (nor in reviews, of course).
Unbeatable! is built around a heroine who is so unpleasant that it's hard to empathize with her struggles. Kristy Cates portrays Tracy Boyd, an aggressive businesswoman who discovers that cancer has infected her body. Not only must Tracy cope without the support of her predictably insensitive husband, but then, in some sort of metaphoric haze, her character is put on trial. She faces an interrogator whose entire performance is built around snapping her fingers — and do you know how irritating that can get after about the thirtieth snap?
For that matter, the entire production is overamplified, and Cates is way overpitched. Director Michael Barnard should have toned her down. Her performance might work at the Fox, but in the intimate Westport Playhouse, it quickly becomes grating. It's hard to know what the director brought to this production. Had I not read Barnard's playbill bio, I would have thought that he had never directed a musical before. He doesn't know how to move actors, and some of his stage pictures are simply ugly. Most of all — and despite the show's overt subject matter — he has shepherded an evening that is not about much of anything. A program note from the executive producer expresses his hope that viewers will "take away the message of early detection and health screenings...." A noble aspiration. But in a show that runs more than two hours, early detection is given less than a minute.
So what's to like about Unbeatable!? John Flack, for one. He holds his head high and brings some humor to one of the many roles he plays. Then there is Stellie Siteman. Her role (Tracy's mom) isn't any better written than the others. But it's a comfort to watch her. She never makes a wrong move, never overplays her hand. Siteman instills the proceedings with such natural poise and understated humor that to see her onstage again is to be reminded of how much she's missed. Would that she were acting all the time.
Amid Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I'm not about to challenge the noble ambitions of a show that tries to chronicle the harrowing saga that ensues after one is diagnosed with cancer. If good intentions were all that's necessary to make a musical, Unbeatable! would be sitting pretty. But it doesn't work that way. Although I concede that a female viewer might find the show more relatable (on opening night the audience was at least 90 percent women), nevertheless as an evening of theater craft — and craft has nothing to do with gender — Unbeatable! seemed to me to be lacking on almost every score.
Speaking of scores, Act Two opens with a clever, laugh-inducing beauty-pageant spoof titled "Miss Chemo." But that's about it for originality. Much of the other music is numbingly derivative. One song is a Godspell clone, another is patterned after Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone," while a third is your obligatory roof-raising gospel hymn. Don't be surprised if you don't remember a note of any of these tunes by the time you reach your car.
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