Voyage of discovery

The Tutor

Book and lyrics by Maryrose Wood
Music by Andrew Gerle
Directed by Sarah Gurfield
Prospect Theatre Company
59 E59 Theatres/Theatre B
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by David Mackler

Maryrose Wood and Andrew Gerle’s The Tutor is a tuneful, pleasantly entertaining musical that has what very few musicals have -- a second act that’s stronger than the first. This beautifully produced Prospect Theater Company presentation took a well-worn story (anything that has a teacher and a student is always going to be Pygmalion-esqe), which runs a predictable course in the first act, but the second act allows the student to explore herself, the world, and where she fits in to it.

More than Pygmalion though, what is invoked here is The Owl and the Pussycat. Edmund (Eric Ankrim) a pretentious, self-involved, would-be novelist, makes his living tutoring rich prep-school kids whose parents have bigger plans for them than they have for themselves. So based on the recommendation of a friend whose son got into the Ivy League school of their choice, the parents of Sweetie (Meredith Bull) expect Edmund to do the same for their precious daughter. Sweetie -- yes, that’s her name -- is a dour, dispirited type given to goth-style make-up and clothes, with no interest in applying to Princeton. Her father, Richard (Richard Pruitt), had dreams of a different life, and her mother, Esther (the glorious Gayton Scott), belongs to whichever cult/fad/religion she feels will give her a fulfilling life. The scene- and character-setting songs are lively and funny -- parents sing of their “Very Special Girl” while Edmund counterpoints with “Stupid Rich Kids”; Edmund and Sweetie come at “Blank” from different perspectives -- he sweats over his unfulfilled potential and she bemoans her life, then with “Me Artist, You Rich” they negotiate who has the power in their relationship. There are funny interpolations of characters from Edmund’s novel-in-progress (Lucy Sorensen and Rafael Fetta entertainingly play all the characters, and more), but of course it’s Sweetie who can immediately tell that his writing is inflated, hyperbolic garbage. The one who needs tutoring is the one who tells the writer that prose should “sound like music.” Yes, well. But after Richard sings “Little Choo Choo,” a song that feels like it was added to give his character something to do (and that was performed far more charmingly than the song deserved), Sweetie discovers Edmund really felt he was slumming tutoring stupid rich kids (and yeah, she kinda liked him). She sings the excellent “One More Thing (I’m Gonna Leave Behind)” as she prepares to run away, and after intermission the show takes its turn into a far more interesting and unexpected sequence of events.

And a considerable reason it’s more interesting is that it becomes Sweetie’s story, and good as Eric Ankrim was, Meredith Bull was better. Her character was played as kind of a cross between Ghost World’s Thora Birch and Veronica Mars’s Kristen Bell, but Bull easily held the stage with understated authority, a wonderful singing voice, and charm to spare in spite of Sweetie’s sullenness. Edmund’s got a lot to do in the second act -- he’s got to realize how much she helped focus his writing, and organize a search for her -- but Sweetie’s personal growth and self-discovery when she falls in with a group of vegan activists is where The Tutor becomes special. (“Don’t Eat Your Friends” is first an entertaining digression, then a character builder.) And it becomes more special when Esther sings of her life choices and disappointments (“That’s How a Life is Made”), going through her own growth spurt in Gayton Scott’s glorious rendition. “A Little More Time” was a perfect 11 o’clock number, shared by Edmund, Sweetie, Richard, and Esther.

Believable? Not terribly. Entertaining? Absolutely. Director Sarah Gurfield put together a terrific soufflé, Naomi Wolff’s costumes enhanced the characters, Nick Francone’s well-designed set used simplicity and multiple levels, and Aaron J. Mason’s lighting, to create a wide variety of settings in a rather small playing area. Perhaps a little less Owl/Pussycat/City of Angels/Lolita and more Bull were the only things to be wished for.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Performing: 2
Set: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2005 David Mackler