Theater: <i>Last Smoker In America</i> Huffs & Puffs But No Nicotine Fix

It's only 90 minutes but the show feels padded since the very slight idea powering it goes nowhere and the songs (lyrics by Russell and music by Peter Melnick) can only muster up so many ways to sing the praises of tobacco.
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A very game cast cannot overcome the inert nature of this musical satire about a society obsessed with denying drinking and smoking and playing video games and eating (and eating and eating) and all the other fun indulgences that may not be good for you but sure make life fun. The show begins with an AA meeting of sorts where a husband (Ernie) admits his wife is still struggling with addiction to nicotine, quite the problem since even possessing a cigarette can get you tossed in the slammer. We hear an ode to the "last smoker in America." In the middle of the show, that woman, Pam (Farah Alvin) is still the defiant last smoker in America. And at the end of the show, some not so shocking revelations have been revealed and the plot has been twisted but Pam is still the last smoker in America.

Similarly, Ernie (the likable John Bolton) begins the show as an unemployed man who is a frustrated rock star penning awful songs in the basement of their home. And in the middle he's dishing out nutty tunes like "Straight White Man." At the end? He's still rocking out. Their neighbor? She's an over-zealous Christian named Phyllis (Natalie Venetia Belcon) so no points for guessing she'll turn out to be a hypocrite. And Pam and Ernie's son is consistently inconsistent since the book by Bill Russell changes its mind every five minutes about what that kid, Jimmy (Jake Boyd) should be.

It's only 90 minutes but the show feels padded since the very slight idea powering it goes nowhere and the songs (lyrics by Russell and music by Peter Melnick) can only muster up so many ways to sing the praises of tobacco.

The set is anonymously suburban without being quite sitcom-ish or retro enough to get across any satirical ideas. But it gets the job done, though the talking smoke alarm is very tiresome as written and designed. Ditto the costumes by Michael McDonald, which have a little fun with an Osmonds sequence and Jimmy's rapper phase. Director Andy Sandberg wisely moves things along as quickly as possible, hoping the more plates he tosses in the air the less likely we'll notice there's not much on the menu.

A few songs linger in the mind, especially "You're The Only Friend I've Got," which does a nice job of illustrating all the desires of the four characters and how they're sublimated and another tune with a nice '50s pop song arrangement that -- like the opener -- shows off the cast's strong voices.

But mostly it's the actors you'll remember since they make the most of the rather thin proceedings and even in a way triumph. Alvin has a certain Frances McDormand quality that's very appealing while Bolton has an everyman charm and a wailing rock star squeal that's probably half the reason he got the part. But because they have to carry the burden of the plot, they can't have quite as much fun as the supporting actors.

Belcon has the most fun here as the nosy neighbor Phyllis. She sings in a smoothed out upper register when in cheery mode but drops down to a lower register to signal disapproval or desire and gets a laugh most every time. She's also the character with the clearest motivation: she's in love with Ernie and jealous of the life Pam has and literally wants to move in and take over. That gives her the most to work with as a character and Belcon scores as much as possible, though Phyllis's hypocrisy is so pat it's kind of a bore.

The creators probably want to pretend the teen Jimmy is trying to find himself like most teens. But in fact their book just flips through identities with an annoying randomness. In the first scene, Jimmy is a whiny kid on serious medication. In his second scene, he struts around like a rapper and insists he's black. In the third he's addicted to video games and somewhat back to his old self with the rapper thang vaguely referenced to every once in a while when it might get a cheap laugh. Later he's a zoned out medication zombie and then a transvestite because that's always good for a transgressive vibe. It's a small miracle that the very appealing Boyd makes any sense of the role at all, much less squeezes out laughs with his sharp timing (though that Osmond outfit helps). He also vocally bounces around with ease from the faux rap of "Gangsta" to the more traditional Broadway belting. (I don't know why he was on the kitchen table licking the puppy dog-shaped cookie jar at one point but it sure made me laugh.)

A flat, would-be outrageous ending doesn't help matters in the least, but that shouldn't obscure the fact that while the musical isn't worthy of them (where there's smoke, there's not always fire) they are a talented quartet.

THE THEATER SEASON 2012-2013 (on a four star scale)

As You Like it (Shakespeare In The Park w Lily Rabe) ****
Chimichangas And Zoloft *
Closer Than Ever ***
Cock ** 1/2
Harvey with Jim Parsons *
My Children! My Africa! ***
Once On This Island ***
Potted Potter *
Storefront Church ** 1/2
Title And Deed ***
Picture Incomplete (NYMF) **
Flambe Dreams (NYMF) **
Rio (NYMF) **
The Two Month Rule (NYMF) *
Trouble (NYMF) ** 1/2
Stealing Time (NYMF) **
Requiem For A Lost Girl (NYMF) ** 1/2
Re-Animator The Musical (NYMF) ***
Baby Case (NYMF) ** 1/2
How Deep Is The Ocean (NYMF) ** 1/2
Central Avenue Breakdown (NYMF) ***
Foreverman (NYMF) * 1/2
Swing State (NYMF) * 1/2
Stand Tall: A Rock Musical (NYMF) * 1/2
Living With Henry (NYMF) *
A Letter To Harvey Milk (NYMF) ** 1/2
The Last Smoker In America **

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.

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