Encore Michigan

‘Love Story’ set to music pulls at the heartstrings

Review January 06, 2017 Jenn McKee

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When I was a kid, a hardcover copy of Love Story – now being staged by Ann Arbor Musical Theatre Works – peeked out from my parents’ living room bookshelves. Being a voracious reader (and a budding junior romantic), I asked my mom if I could read it. She said yes, and I gobbled it up, feeling like I’d been handed a ticket to the world of adults. And indeed, the slim volume was packed-to-bursting with family drama, romance, humor, sex, and tragedy, which is probably why it had previously been such a huge hit in 1970, both as a novel and a film.

Comcast/Xfinity is a proud sponsor of EncoreMichigan and of professional theatre throughout Michigan.

Comcast/Xfinity is a proud sponsor of EncoreMichigan and of professional theatre throughout Michigan.

Erich Segal’s iconic story focuses on a love affair between Harvard hockey player Oliver Barrett IV (Kevin Kaminski) and a baker’s daughter studying piano at Radcliffe, Jenny Cavilleri (Colby Cesaro). Oliver’s wealthy father (Jared Hoffert) doesn’t approve of the match, so when the pair decide to marry, Oliver is disinherited, leaving the couple to financially fend for themselves. Jenny works as a teacher while Oliver attends law school, and when a lucrative law career in Manhattan beckons, it seems the couple’s sacrifices have paid off. When they can’t seem to get pregnant, though, Jenny’s blood test reveals that she has a serious illness and limited time.

I would have said “spoiler alert,” but the musical – with a book and lyrics by Stephen Clark, and music and additional lyrics by Howard Goodall – begins at Jenny’s funeral. The show’s creators obviously assumed that many will come already knowing how the story ends, so they frame it instead as an opportunity to focus on how these characters reach this point.

Ironically, the musical version of “Love Story” was a big hit in Britain, but it never made much headway in America, despite the story’s American roots. Director Ron Baumanis, who’d seen the West End production years ago, obtained special permission from the show’s creators, so Ann Arbor is now home to the exclusive U.S. production of the show.

Baumanis stages the musical at The Children’s Creative Center in the sparest manner possible. You may be familiar with black box theaters, but CCC looks like their inverse, draped in white, with white crates stacked to represent various items: a library check-out desk; a family’s dinner table; a piano; a restaurant booth; etc. Though the show only runs a little shy of 90 minutes, with no intermission, the staging nonetheless keeps most scene transitions brief, and keeps the focus on the dialogue and music.
The four piece orchestra, led by music director Leah Fox, sits at the audience’s level, and because of the small space, the music can occasionally overwhelm the vocals. Overall, though, the balance was decent, and much of the score is lovely and affecting. (Highlights include the buoyant wedding song “Summer’s Day” and “Jenny’s Piano Song/Winter’s Night”.) Those on the lookout for the film’s Oscar-winning instrumental melody, however, will only find it embedded within Oliver’s “The Recital.” (And if you’re waiting for the movie’s famous tagline, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” it never makes an appearance in the show. Thank goodness.)

Susan Pearlman designed the show’s 60s era costumes, taking care to dress the actors in clothes that quietly place us in the era without distracting us from the story.

On opening night, there were intermittent lighting glitches (which I’d assume will get straightened out as the run continues), and Kaminski suffered a couple of very minor vocal missteps. Overall, though, Baumanis’ bare bones production is sound.

Kaminski looks the part of Oliver and effectively conveys his smart-alecky charm with warmth and humor. Cesaro, meanwhile, delivers clear vocals and a Jenny that’s plucky but also vulnerable.

Love Story, despite its blockbuster success as a book and a movie, is not without its flaws. Oliver and Jenny can sometimes come off as annoyingly smug, individually and as a couple; and the fact that a doctor, in 1970, would deliver a woman’s terminal diagnosis to her husband instead of her never ceases to floor me. (Perhaps this kind of thing might have actually happened in that era, but it’s positively chilling as a plot point.) Finally, though it clocks in under 90 minutes, the show doesn’t feel fleet.

But it’s a pleasant enough valentine of a production, exploring what two people from different worlds are willing to sacrifice in order to be together.

And as a wink and a nod to the story’s heartstring-pulling conclusion, your ticket comes in the form of a travel pack of tissues. Well played, AAMTW.