Austin's Bridge," the world premiere musical at the Firehouse Theatre, depicts the difficult, uplifting but ultimately tragic relationship between two mentally challenged adults. It's difficult when watching it not to be reminded of plays like "David and Lisa," or movies like "Benny and Joon," which cover similar territory.
In "Bridge," the characters are named Ronald and Ruth, but here's the thing: The show's not really about them. And that's part of the problem.
The Austin of the title (played by Jeremy Jordan) is a spoiled big-city 20-something on the run from the law when he happens upon the River Meadow Country Village, a residential facility in upstate New York. The show tracks his stint as housefather to the childlike residents, which awakens the humanity buried beneath his superficiality and materialism.
But Bill C. Davis, who wrote the book and lyrics for "Bridge" and directs the production as well, undermines his protagonist. Even with Jordan's stunning voice and hunky demeanor, Austin's story is never as compelling as those of the characters around him.
Still, it's hard not to be won over by a production that works so hard to be loved. The angelic Ruth (Robin Harris Jones) and earnest Ronald (Billy Christopher Maupin) are sweetly devoted, while spunky Lauren (Corey Davis) is charmingly obsessive. Angela Shipley takes the relatively thankless role of Austin's love interest and makes it shine. Each cast member sings exceptionally, infusing genuine emotion into the soaring melodies composed by Brett Boles (my only complaint being a certain similarity amongst his many mid-tempo ballads).
For a play that touches on deceit, self-abuse and mental illness, though, "Bridge" skirts the real darkness behind some of its themes the other problematic aspect of the show. At the end of the evening, I was most intrigued by Diane (Taylor Baltimore), the trouble-making floozy who seems bent on spoiling the innocence of her fellow residents. Her short second-act lament, "Like I Did," hints at a bleakness unexplored here.
"Austin's Bridge" has its share of thrilling moments and touching scenes, but it hasn't quite crossed over from work-in-progress to finished product. S
"Austin's Bridge" is appearing at the Firehouse Theatre, shows Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees June 24 and July 1 at 4 p.m. Tickets are $25. Through July 7. 355-2001.