Well that was a pleasant surprise. Someone pinch us.
"Chance," a brand new musical at the Alcove Theater, tells the story of a middle-aged but inexperienced psychologist (a prickly but lovable Richard Hefner) who falls for a Rocky Horror-like rent boy (Ken Lear, who's a bit stiff but on the plus side appears to have gone back for seconds at the beefcake table). Their budding romance must overcome past trauma, nagging fears and just plain old-fashioned bad luck to make it work. Looks simple on the surface, but it turns out simplicity and complexity aren't mutually exclusive after all.
And there's singing; man oh man, is there singing. We'd call the style "rock opera light." Or maybe rock opera up close, since the cast are practically in the front row's laps (for a donation they might do away with the "practically" part, but no promises, and you didn't hear it from us in any case).
Hefner and Lear are a good team; they binge on insecurity when alone and have passive-aggressive ballets when they're together. Too many love stories resort to being cute to sell the romantic and sexual chemistry, but in "Chance" you don't necessarily need to feel mushy to feel invested.
Witty Oscar Wilde quotes crucial to the plot: "There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what you want and the other is getting it."
Oh yeah, there's another cast member too: Hefner's sassy guardian angel/spiritual guide/live-in hallucination played by drag performer Randy Roberts. The show is rather unfairly tilted in Roberts' favor, as he gets the best songs, the best lines and unquestionably the best wardrobe (looking a little bit like if someone poured David Bowie into a blender with Madame Web). He spruces up what might otherwise be a too-standard love story and makes it into something more like a collaboration between Rod Serling and John Waters (speaking of which, why is no one writing that musical?).
All in all, it's a good show. While the first act serves as something of a farce with some camp noir overtones, the second takes a surprisingly grave turn into mortality, spirituality and the dangerous ease of self-deception. Somewhere in the overlap between Zen philosophy, Jungian psychology, Oscar Wilde (who is quoted constantly throughout the production. We tried to make a drinking game of it, but had to stop for fear of our lives) and "Rent" you'll find "Chance."
Come to think of it, this show might comprise the entirety of that singular overlap, but that's still an impressive niche to carve out.
"Chance" is a decidedly off-Broadway musical in a style we don't see very much in San Francisco. The central love story is actually a little worn if you stop to think about it, but director Robert Kalfin coaxes an awful lot of intimacy out of the material, and the cast really does sell it. While a perfunctory standing ovation seems to have become standard at the end of any play these days, the audience in the Alcove Theater seemed to really, really mean it when they got out of their seats for "Chance."
Witty Oscar Wilde quotes crucial to the plot: "Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."
And God does it feel good to watch a new play that manages to feel personal without being self-indulgent and presents something cerebral without seeming self-important. What do they call that trick again? Oh yeah: good writing.
We'd be remiss not to mention the band: Caleb Herring on Bass, Ruth Price on drums and musical director Tammy L. Hall (who, oddly enough, gets almost as many lines as the leads) on piano. It's no insult to them to say that the atmosphere they cook up is so good we sometimes forgot they were there (at least, we hope it's no insult to them).
Let's face it, theater is an expensive habit, and small shows like "Chance" aren't any cheaper for being small. We probably have some sort of sacred critic's obligation to say that art is worth whatever you pay for it (a rationale that seems dangerously likely to lead to a black velvet painting somewhere down the line), but the crass truth is there's a minimum $40 a seat riding on a theatrical recommendation in this town, and in this economy that's a lot of pressure. "Chance" is the odd show that's actually worth opening your wallet for. Check it out; you'll be glad.
Witty Oscar Wilde quotes crucial to the plot: "Life is not fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not."
The show is good for: Anyone who wants his or her fondness for musicals rejuvenated.
The show is not good for: Anyone with an overweening sense of cynicism about theatrical romance.
"Chance" plays through July 28 at the Alcove Theater, 414 Mason St., San Francisco. For tickets and show times go to chancethemusical.com