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Theatre Review: 'I've Never Been So Happy' Is a Complete Misfire

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Paul Soileau, Jenny Larson, Meg Sullivan and Lowell Bartholomee in "I've Never Been So Happy." Photo - Craig Schwartz
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In Bob Dylan's song, "Absolutely Sweet Marie," there's a lyric that reads: "to live outside the law you must be honest." Along the lines of that seemingly incongruous bit of wisdom runs my own thought on arty or avant-garde theatre: just being clever isn't enough. You have to demonstrate excellent quality and above all, be interesting. You want to create a musical full of tuneless songs and deliberately thin characters that perversely ignores the energy of the musical theatre form? Go to it. You want to craft a goofy scenario that never quite reaches the level of humor but lounges in a sterile limbo of hipster camp? Have at it. But for God's sake, knock it out of the park. Show us why you're wrenching these old tropes around. Give us a reason to be there in the audience. Otherwise, the Muse coughs and you end up with something as profoundly disappointing as I've Never Been So Happy, a production by the Rude Mechs theatre company from Austin, TX, now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

The story, which is the merest bony frame upon which to drape the production, could generously be described as more symbolic than realistic. Annabellee (Meg Sullivan) wants to get out and experience the big bad world, but she's a prisoner in her variety show host father Brutus' (Lowell Bartholomee) TV studio home until she gets married. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Texas county, Jeremy (E. Jason Liebrecht) has been raised by his mother Julie (Cami Alys) in an all-women's commune, but he's just turned 18 and so Julie does the logical thing and ties him to Texas' last free mountain lion and sends him off to become a man. With the help of a tough-talking Sheriff (Kerri Atwood) and sibling dachshunds (Jenny Larson and Paul Soileau), Annabellee and Jeremy meet and fall for each other, but fate conspires to pull them apart.

Sullivan is stuck with a one-dimensional protagonist role that can be defined in the single word "plucky," and she unfortunately gets lost in the generic blandness. Her songs "Everything's Tied" and "Western Way of Livin'" suffer from similar fates — they're pleasant and unexceptional and lumber along. Liebrecht fares slightly better if only because Jeremy's situation is at least initially more compelling (though that potential peters out quickly) and his performance of the more traditional-sounding country-western number "Electric Signals" is well sung. Bartholomee's role as written seems like a place keeper for a villain that doesn't gets fleshed out, and he never gets past a general state of glowering, but Atwood brings some brusque appeal that propels her beyond the feeble book. Her signature number, "Oh Shit," is mildly amusing until it wears out its welcome, as do all the songs in the show.

Alys succeeds in humanizing an odd character and demonstrates a strong voice in the title number, but isn't able to keep "Magical Knot" from plodding. Peter Stopschinski is bluntly funny as the voice of the Mountain Lion in the crunchy heavy metal "Don't Know Sing," which he oddly yet somewhat charmingly does in what sounds like a Russian accent. Larson and Soileau benefit from having the best writing, but their performances are also consistently good, from their endearing tail-wagging movements to their sudden adoption of German accents to tell some corny jokes or their smooth R&B take on "She Likes Fur." Unfortunately they're also saddled with the single worst song in the show, "A Dog's Life," a tiresomely twee ode to the joys of urination and defecation, among other canine concerns. “Things I Loved About That Dog” is a reasonably moving capper, but it’s too little too late.

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Co-directors Thomas Graves and Lana Lesley stage Happy listlessly, and Dayna Hanson's choreography feels uninspired. The band, however, is quite good, and Eric Roach's guitar work tastefully fits with whatever genre is needed, from country-western licks to a blazing onstage rock solo. What is so confounding about Kirk Lynn's book and Stopschinski's music (they both wrote lyrics) is that flashes of inspiration are tantalizingly evident, but they're squashed flat under a monolithic attempt to be different regardless of the outcome. Almost all of the songs are tuneless, and even as song stories a la Brecht they're colorless and tedious. It's frustrating because this group has so much more promise and talent than this show delivers. With all the great small theatre companies available in L.A. that could benefit from being on the Douglas' stage right now, Center Theatre Group audiences deserve better than this weak import.

"I've Never Been So Happy" is playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Oct. 23, 2011. Tickets are available online.