The world premiere of Muscle at Pegasus Players is just what the play doctor ordered. It makes apparent the undeveloped strengths of the work, and also reveals some major problems, proving that even Tony Award winners can face complex challenges when bringing a new musical to life.
The concept ( by librettist James Lapine ) is strong: an exploration—in our body-conscious age—of the hard-core muscle subculture, told as a modern Charles Atlas tale in which a "pencil neck" becomes a bodybuilder. The show cries out for a major choreographic element which it does not have at Pegasus, but which must be intrinsic to its future. The intended dance and movement numbers are clear—among them the title song sung by gym rats, a satirical California montage, and the novelty "Beauty"—but unrealized, given the limits of the Chicago non-union talent pool.
But Lapine and co-authors William Finn ( music ) and Ellen Fitzhugh ( lyrics ) also have left astonishing gaps in their storytelling. They place Muscle in 1984, but don't make the date germane. And the motivation for skinny and bookish Max to take up weight training—then shift to competitive body building—is murky; vaguely related to a one-night stand with a gal pal from his college days. The psychology needs better delineation. The Act I curtain, for example, comes when Max moves from New York to California, rather than at a moment of dramatic crisis, which would be more productive.
More importantly, the timeline is impossible: Max goes from 97lb. weakling to "a size 18 neck" in a matter of months, whereas such transformations take several years, especially without steroids. A two-year timeline would enhance the story, allowing deeper character development and some type of desperately needed subplot. Rather than a one-night stand Max needs a sustained relationship, perhaps losing the girl BECAUSE of his physical and personality alterations. This would play strongly into the show's brain vs. body theme, and give it a more classical musical format.
Those familiar with Finn's Falsettos ( co-authored by Lapine ) may be disappointed that Muscle is not as self-apparently tuneful. The sharply drawn Fitzhugh lyrics often don't lend themselves to neat verses that result in hummable tunes. Eschewing florid poetics and rhymed cleverness, Fitzhugh prefers dry wit and open line structures. As a result, some songs stop without big endings, or flow into the next musical sequence ( although Muscle is not through-scored ) . Finn's score, however, is a broadly ranging pastiche in contemporary idiom that veers from opera buffa patter ( Now I Understand ) to Latin rhythms ( California ) to anthems ( Judges ) to a romantic waltz ( A Nice Thing ) .
The Pegasus production benefits from tall, handsome and strong-voiced Rob Hancock as Max, dazzlingly beefed-up by Nan Zabriskie's very clever muscle suit. Everyone else in the show is a supporting player and most are very good, especially Timothy John ( Ajax ) , Jane Blass ( Elaine ) and the versatile Greek chorus of six "Muses." Brad Potts can't sing, but adds legitimacy as the only authentic body builder in the company of 17. Women don't have much to do in Muscle, but Audrey Yeck ( the one-night stand ) , Chavez Ravine ( a body builder ) and Anita Hoffman ( Max's mother ) bring personality to limited roles.
John Steinhagen is the astute musical director and pianist ( joined by Cynthia Stephens ) . Jack Magaw ( scenic ) and David Lander ( lighting ) have provided the limited but serviceable decor of California and New York backdrops and gym mirrors. Steve Mezger's sound design is effective and unobtrusive. Ann Filmer has provided choreography that suggests far greater possibilities. Gareth Hendee is the director, who gives Muscle decent overall shape, although the book scenes are slow.
Even before it opened, the authors had begun revisions, and they still have work to do. A few numbers are weak and can go; the opening number is big but not really effective; the story needs to jump out of the gate more quickly, and with less clumsy exposition. The opportunity for Chicagoans is to see a potential Broadway hit in its roughest, earliest incarnation.