The oft-proclaimed death of the American musical seems greatly exaggerated. New forms continue to evolve, and Vermont stages have recently hosted examples of a curious new sub-species: the "phase-of-life" musical revue. The latest - Midlife! The Crisis Musical - runs through Sunday at Northern Stage in White River Junction.
What's behind the genre's genesis? The revue has roots in vaudeville: a series of thematically connected song-and-dance numbers, no plot required. Often, the music itself - a style or songwriter - provides the linking idea. The phase-of-life show stages a common slice of human experience - that is, if we all crooned and hoofed our way through bad dates or embarrassing doctor's appointments.
Midlife's director, Catherine Doherty, traces several contributing strands of dramatic DNA. "Material that had previously been off-limits, whether it's sex, aging, mammograms . . . is far more accepted now than it had been 10, 15 years ago," she notes. Musically, phase-of-life shows reflect off-Broadway's trend of "fusion between cabaret and revue," Doherty adds. Small ensemble casts make economic sense; an intimate scale helps connect actors and audiences. The self-referential silliness of "Saturday Night Live" skits infuses the comedy. "This genre winks at the audience," Doherty admits.
Sharp-eyed theatrical taxidermists will note the species' two variants: revues with original music, and "parody" shows. The "parody" plays, such as Parenting 101 (at Burlington's Waterfront Theater last month) and Menopause the Musical, pinch popular tunes and flog broad comedy into schticky submission. Original shows - such as Midlife and the delightful Man-versus-Woman-themed I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, which Doherty directed at St. Michael's Playhouse in 2005 and Northern Stage in 2006 - balance hilarious high jinks with reflective numbers. "If you don't play the contrast," Doherty notes, "you end up with farce fatigue."
Northern Stage's production of Midlife! The Crisis Musical runs through May 6. For more info or tickets, visit http://www.northernstage. org or call 296-7000.