Theater Review: For Better of Worse this ‘Prelude’ Has Some Charm, but Lacks Freshness

Kevin Taft reviews Prelude to a Kiss, a new theatrical production of Craig Lucas’ popular play that never quite gets going.
User Rating: 5

An earnest misfire, the brand new musical update of Craig Lucas’ famous play, “Prelude to a Kiss,” is having its World Premiere at the South Coast Playhouse—the same location where the original play premiered in January 1988.

For the uninitiated, “Prelude” is about a couple named Rita (Hannah Corneau) and Peter (Chris McCarrell) who meet cute at a mutual friend’s party and take a liking to each other.

Rita is a cynical, no-nonsense bartender who is a bit afraid of the world and refuses to really allow herself to open up to the joys and dreams of life. On the other hand, Peter is a bit squirrelly and self-conscious but pursues Rita regardless, and that dichotomy between them causes them to fall in love.

However, things take a turn when an older man named Julius (Jonathan Gillard Daly) appears at their wedding and asks if he can kiss the bride. Curious, Rita allows him, and when their lips meet, the two switch bodies. (Unbeknownst to everyone else, of course.)

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What follows is a honeymoon where a confused Peter doesn’t understand why his wife is acting so differently and an eventual realization that Rita isn’t really Rita. But why did the two switch bodies? And how can Peter find the Old Man so that they can switch back to the way things used to be?

Lucas’ play was made into a film starring Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin (who originated the role onstage), but it didn’t really heat up the box office. While it’s a cute concept, the film didn’t translate, and it ended up feeling like an adult version of any number of body-swapping comedies that were all the rage at the time.

To be fair, for this reviewer, the play itself doesn’t quite work as written, leaving a lot of unexplored ideas and themes by the wayside. Rita’s explanation for why she could switch bodies with Julius seems to come out of nowhere, and her fear of the world battles with her proud independence. (She invites Peter to come back to her apartment within 5 minutes of him visiting her at the bar she works at. For someone afraid of the world, she certainly isn’t fearful of a stranger coming into her home.)

So, for a slight play of 70 minutes, adding contemplative songs (plus a few unnecessary upbeat numbers) doesn’t add much to the story that we’re not already getting from Lucas’ dialogue. (He adapted his play into the musical version.) Many of the songs by Sean Hartley and Daniel Messe sound similar, so audiences probably won’t be humming any particular tune once they leave the theater.

Corneau’s Rita is a tough cookie, but in this incarnation, she’s also not very likable. She’s defensive and a bit standoffish, which doesn’t create a lot of chemistry with the earnest and puppy-dog-like Peter.

In fact, she has more chemistry with her lesbian best friend Leah played by DeAnn Stewart. As a result, McCarrell (a late addition after the original cast member left the production) does much of the heavy lifting as Peter. He desperately tries to add humor and spark between the two, but despite both actors being terrific singers and clearly good actors, the pairing doesn’t work. Corneau plays Rita in such a way that it’s hard to see why Peter would fall in love with her, much less she for him. She looks like she could eat him for breakfast.

Once the body swap happens, Corneau opens up and is more fun to watch, but I was never convinced either of the swappers were other people on the inside.

McCarrell and Daly’s Old Man have some fun scenes together, but this begs the question of why Lucas couldn’t have updated his play for a modern audience. There’s a bit where Peter realizes Rita is inside Julius’ body and kisses him because he can still sense the woman he loves. This could have made the play about so much more than accepting where someone is in life. Switch out the Old Man for a Young Guy and you have an interesting exploration of love that knows no gender.

However, as Rita’s parents, James Moye and Karen Ziemba are a delight, adding much-needed energy to a show that oddly lacks it.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of talent or work that went into creating this new production. But I wonder why this new musical incarnation exists in the first place. With a fresh take and standout songs, this “Prelude” might have been given a chef’s kiss. Instead, it feels like an overture to a better show that never quite gets going.

“Prelude to a Kiss, the Musical” runs through May 4th at the South Coast Reparatory Playhouse at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
For more information and tickets, visit https://www.scr.org/

 

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Kevin is a long-time movie buff with a wide variety of tastes and fixations in the film world. He cried the moment Benji appeared onscreen in “Benji,” and it took him about four times to finally watch “The Exorcist” (at age 24) without passing out. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the movie that changed everything and when his obsession with films and filmmaking began. A screenwriter himself (one long-ago horror script sale to New Line remains on a shelf), his first film "Two Tickets to Paradise" that he co-wrote premiered in June 2022 on Hallmark. He is currently working on another for the iconic brand.

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