NEW YORK (AP) — Imagine a world where the phrase, “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em,” is replaced by, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”
In the silly new off-Broadway musical “The Last Smoker in America,” which opened Thursday at the Westside Theatre, wildly draconian anti-smoking laws create a culture of fear in a society where lighting up could get you locked up.
Despite a very appealing four-person cast and a few cutely clever songs, early prospects for fun are extinguished by a disappointingly uneven score and stale gags that are as pervasive as the show’s predictable abundance of artificial smoke.
With music by Peter Melnick (“Adrift in Macao”) and lyrics and book by Bill Russell (Tony Award nominee for “Side Show”), “Last Smoker” begins promisingly enough, featuring a pair of songs that elegantly introduce an impressive duo of buoyant and talented female leads.
Farah Alvin plays the troubled but lovable suburban matriarch Pam, whose smoking habit threatens to land her in jail and break up her happy — OK, not so happy — family, which is rounded out by her fervently supportive ex-smoker husband Ernie (John Bolton) and thoroughly mixed-up son Jimmy (Jake Boyd).
Clad in a terry cloth robe and house slippers, Alvin is sweetly affecting while singing songs like “I Can’t Quit Now” and the show’s catchy — if sappy — title theme.
She’s joined by the ever-endearing Natalie Venetia Belcon as Phyllis, a busybody next-door neighbor turned cigarette watchdog.
The upbeat gospel number “Let the Lord Be Your Addiction” proves an ideal vehicle to showcase the vibrant Belcon, who was so memorable as Gary Coleman in the original production of “Avenue Q.”
But before long, the one-act farce is derailed by a few songs that leave the audience wishing these outlandish characters would quit singing instead of smoking.
The greatest offender is a stiffly uncomfortable rap called “Gangsta,” in which young Jimmy, adorned in gold chains and baggy jeans, forswears his true race and insists to his parents that he’s black.
“All my homies love me, ’cause I be black,” he inexplicably intones. “Yo, yo, I a gangsta.” Soon the entire cast is rhyming to the squarest of hip-hop beats.
If that’s not enough to turn you off smoking — or rather musicals about smoking — there’s Ernie’s rock anthem “Straight White Man,” a protest song about the lack of sympathy for his demographic.
The world inside Melnick and Russell’s “Last Smoker in America,” where possession of a single cigarette is punishable by up to a year in prison, is of course analogous to more than just the fall of cigarette smoking in American culture.
The musical tosses around themes of social intolerance and government infringement on civil liberties, to name just a few.
But with a front-loaded score that needs a few more good tunes to keep the audience engaged, the show’s lighthearted commentary and blithe humor lose their resonance in a cloud of … you guessed it.
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