12:57 pm Aug. 3, 2012
If you’re mildly miffed about Mayor Bloomberg’s nanny-state crusades – against cigarettes, trans fat, and now soda – but still have enough sense of humor to realize that medium-sized Mountain Dews are not necessarily the first step on the road to 1984, then The Last Smoker in America is for you.
Set in a not-too-distant future when smoking scofflaws face jail time if they can’t kick the habit, this new off-Broadway musical takes aim at well intentioned but punitive public health campaigns run amok. Ernie and Pam, a suburban married couple, are both trying to quit smoking; he’s ultimately successful, but she can’t give up her addiction. (“I wish that she could kiss those butts…goodbye,” Ernie sings in the opener.) Strict regulations have turned Pam into an outlaw, her behavior monitored by roaming robots, a Big Brother-style smoke detector, and her own husband – not to mention her nosy neighbor Phyllis, cheerleader for the town’s campaign against “Satan’s playthings.”
The Last Smoker in America is presented in a gently silly kind of way, almost like a family sitcom—less menacing than a dystopian fantasy, less outrageous than a farce, less biting than a political satire. As Ernie and Pam, John Bolton and Farah Alvin get a few chuckles; Bolton has one particularly memorable moment where he learns to cope with his anger through Riverdance. But the biggest laughs go to the energetic Jake Boyd as their quirky teenage son Jimmy (a fan of hip hop, video games, and cross-dressing), and the fantastic Natalie Venetia Belcon as the very Christian, very hypocritical Phyllis; Belcon’s vocal tricks alone—delivering most of her lines in a high-pitched squeak, only to drop several octaves here and there for effect—steal many scenes.
The book and lyrics by Bill Russell (Side Show) are mostly solid, if not outstanding, and the music by Peter Melnick (Adrift in Macao) is mostly decent, performed with enthusiasm by a four-piece band. The sound is unobtrusively middle-of-the-road theater pop for the most part, which is fine; the few times the composers stray too far, the results aren’t pretty, as in the rotten hard rock anthem “Straight White Man” or the goofy rap number “Gangsta.” (The latter gets big applause, but more for Boyd’s committed and manic performance than for the song itself.) Far better are Phyllis’s gospel-inflected “Let the Lord Be Your Addiction” and Pam’s strident turn in the title song, which she sings after spending a year on the lam.
This isn’t a big show that’s been crammed onto an undersized off-Broadway stage, hoping for a Broadway transfer; this is a small show that’s suited to its modest space. It’s not the most daring or subtle or complex piece of theater. The song titles alone – from “Fight for the Right to Light Up” to “If Our Lungs Could Only Talk” or “Smoking Makes Me Happy” – pretty much give away the whole plot, such as it is. But this intermissionless show is a cute enough distraction to warrant a few laughs, if you can go 90 minutes without a cigarette break.
The Last Smoker in America is showing at the Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St. Tickets are $85. Call 212-239-6200.
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