November 15, 2018

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Review: In ‘Evolution of Mann,’ Fumbling Cuteness Goes Only So Far

Review: In ‘Evolution of Mann,’ Fumbling Cuteness Goes Only So Far
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Henry Mann has had a bad year: He has been to 12 weddings. You’d think he would wise up after four or five, but no: It’s when he receives a 13th invite — from his ex-girlfriend, no less — that he decides it’s time to find his soul mate. No way is he attending this particular shindig as a single man.

But before this happens our hero (Max Crumm) has some growing up to do in “The Evolution of Mann,” the cliché-ridden new musical by Douglas J. Cohen and Dan Elish at the Cell Theater. Henry’s biggest challenge involves deciding who is meant for him: a shy, quirky colleague or a preening narcissist. Common sense dictates the answer, but musicals, and love, don’t run on common sense. Still, watching a handful of romantic comedies for guidance would have saved a lot of anguish.

Henry and Gwen (Leslie Hiatt), his friend, roommate and colleague, are both in the doldrums. A would-be performance artist, she is separated from her wife and playing the field, or at least she works hard to look like she is.

As for Henry, he’s an aspiring writer of both musicals and children’s poetry, and finds refuge in passive-aggression masked as fumbling cuteness.

This nice guy is picky, too: His main objection to the adorably nerdy Christine (Allie Trimm, of “13” and the 2009 revival of “Bye Bye Birdie”) is that she has a unibrow. Harsh, from a man who at one point wears a yellow beret to look bohemian and impress his new girlfriend, Tamar (Ms. Trimm again). That she is bad news is telegraphed by her working in public relations. Has a member of that profession ever been anything but manipulative and superficial in a rom-com?

She cannot possibly be a good influence on Henry, and even talks him into going back to work on his long-neglected (for a reason) musical adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.”

“She’s my own Daisy Buchanan/But she’ll never let a man like Henry Mann in,” he sings despondently after meeting Tamar.

Alas for his sake, she does. Alas for the audience’s sake, there are plenty more such rhymes.

Mr. Elish (“13”) collaborated on the lyrics with Mr. Cohen, who composed the bland tunes that never test the cast, but he bears sole responsibility for the book, based on his own 2005 novel, “Nine Wives.” In addition to the aforementioned dilemma between an obvious good choice and an obvious bad choice, Mr. Elish also keeps bringing up potentially fun plot points, only to drop them.

Not enough is made, for instance, of the terrible “Gatsby” musical Henry and Tamar commit, or of Gwen’s forays into performance art (she is like a defanged version of Maureen from “Rent”).

The show, directed by Joe Barros, does find time for “Hard,” in which Henry gets an unfortunate erection while slow dancing with Christine. “Do I pretend it’s there at all,” she sings. “What is the protocol? The situation’s hard.”

To their credit, Ms. Trimm and Mr. Crumm — who is much better playing a bumbling lover than he was as the swaggering Danny Zuko in Kathleen Marshall’s 2007 revival of “Grease” — display as much charm in this number as is humanly possible.

The Evolution of Mann
Through Oct. 27 at the Cell, Manhattan; thecelltheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.



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