Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell Me on a Sunday is nothing like an "Andrew Lloyd Webber" musical. There is no bombast, no cast of thousands and no stray cats wandering across stage to the cloying strains of "Memory."
Instead of overwhelming you with a barrage of sights and sounds, Webber seduces you with a delicate musical about an Englishwoman trying to make her way in America — and find love while she's at it. Tell Me on a Sunday is as intimate as a handwritten letter, and as welcome, too. It's a surprising change of pace for the man who ambushed the world with the monstrous Starlight Express.
Of course it's no surprise that New Line Theatre's season-closing production of the show wrings so much joy from Tell Me on a Sunday; the company has a way with musicals. But this production is helmed by Mike Dowdy-Windsor in his solo directorial debut, not company founder and artistic director Scott Miller. It's an auspicious beginning for Dowdy-Windsor, who demonstrates a deft touch for pacing and staging and a keen understanding of character.
New Line stalwart Sarah Porter plays Emma, the young woman who leaves England for New York and then Los Angeles in search of love despite breakup after breakup. Porter has a massive, thrilling voice often put to the test in showstopping, heart-in-throat songs, but here she's given the opportunity to showcase an entirely different set of vocal skills.
"Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad," a song about the artificial nature of Los Angeles, is an honest-to-God bouncy pop song with a clockwork rhythm and Donovan's old flute. Porter drifts through it breezily, and every time she hits the refrain "Have a nice day," her voice gets breathier and more vacuous. Porter also deftly twists and turns through the rapid-fire accusations of "You Made Me Think You Were In Love," a song about deception couched in Hollywood terminology. (Most of the show's lyrics are by Don Black, and they are sharp, witty and catchy.)
Musical director/pianist Nate Jackson and the band do an excellent job supporting Porter throughout the show, not that there was a chance they would instead drown out her voice. The combination of cello (Eric Bateman), percussion (Clancy Newell), bass (Jake Stergos) and reeds (Harrison Rich) is an inspired one, giving the show a jazz feel that enhances its coziness. Rich in particular does MVP work, switching between flute and saxophone as needed. His saxophone work is downright tasteful in "Come Back with the Same Look in Your Eyes," a slinky number about keeping the passion going through a protracted absence that is aided by Jackson's dexterous electric piano.
But even though it's a one-woman show, this is no mere song recital. Porter shows off her acting chops in "Take That Look Off Your Face," as she hears from a "friend" that her current beau has been spotted with someone else. Her surprise builds to anger, which she channels into a focused beam of rage at the bearer of bad news. Porter makes it look easy, but even at the peak of her pique she hews to the melody without cracking. It's impressive work, even for her.
At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is her performance of the title track, a bittersweet song of loss and acceptance as another romance fizzles. Porter sings it tenderly, wrapping herself in melancholia as she once again finds herself alone in foreign country. It's a private moment made public as Emma drops her tough-girl facade and abandons all her worldliness in favor of telling the truth — to her unfaithful boyfriend, and to herself.
This is easily my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber song, in what is easily my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber show. That might sound like faint praise — but I hate Andrew Lloyd Webber the same way boys hate baths: Immediately, unthinkingly and with foot-stamping petulance. Dowdy-Windsor and Porter have trumped that hatred with a lovely little show that celebrates our human need for love. It's an undeniable winner, even though it's a Webber.