LOWELL — Charissa Bertels possesses the kind of stage presence that makes each member of the audience feel she is speaking directly to them. That’s important, since “My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend” is a one-woman show, now having its world premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre through May 21.
Bertels, whose credits include the Broadway production of the musical “A Christmas Story,” a national tour of “If/Then,” and the ensembles of several New York City Center Encores productions, is an impressive triple threat talent. She has a lovely vocal range she describes as “soprano-belter,” a broad dance vocabulary (there’s even a breakout tap routine), and excellent comedic timing. The weakness in “My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend” is that her collaborators, composer and lyricist Edward Bell and book writer and lyricist Christian Duhamel, have not come up with a show that completely lives up to her talent.
“My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend” tells Bertels’s autobiographical story of the determination and discipline she exerts to get to Broadway, with the encouragement of an unexpected friend. Bell captures her single-minded approach in the opening number, “By the Numbers,” and Bertels’s quirky personality comes through with comic lines about her “survival job” selling juice at supermarkets around the city. But in order to get to Bertels’s deeper themes of opening yourself to possibilities and treasuring the people around you, she and her creative team need to dig beneath the surface cliches.
The story line is way too predictable, checking all the boxes: She follows her dream and is rewarded; she befriends an 80-year-old man named Milton who teaches her to take a leap of faith; her father disappoints her but then she realizes she is just like him; she has a nasty breakup with Milton but then they make up. It all swirls past in an overcharged blur that doesn’t allow us to see how this unlikely friendship develops.
What’s missing, if we are to buy this story, is Milton. Granted, one of the show’s highlights is Bertels’s duet with herself in “Together With You,” but this show would be so much richer if we could see the friendship blossom, rather than simply hear Bertels tell us that it has.
Composer Bell’s songs show off Bertels’s talent, but are too derivative to be distinctive. Bell may be inspired by composers such as Jerry Herman, Tom Kitt, and Robert Lopez, but he needs to find his own voice and include songs that vary a little more in tempo and style.
Director Sean Daniels keeps Bertels moving effectively across the stage, and she works smoothly with the variety of props she pulls out of her bag. Neil Patel’s simple set balances music director Kevin David Thomas, who accompanies Bertels on the piano on one side of the stage, while a small table and two chairs represent Milton’s living room on the other side.
In the show’s penultimate number, Bertels accompanies herself on the piano for a gorgeous performance of “Wandrers Nachtlied,” the Goethe poem set to music by Franz Schubert. Goethe’s poetry is something the two friends have in common, and the song is the one unhurried moment in the show, one that is infused with emotional depth. A few more subtle moments like that, a few more little breaths of truth, would elevate this show to something beyond a comic pastiche. In the meantime, keep your eye out for the next show Bertels appears in. She’s got talent.
MY 80-YEAR-OLD BOYFRIEND
Conceived by Charissa Bertels. Book and lyrics by Christian Duhamel. Music and lyrics by Edward Bell. Directed by Sean Daniels. Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre. At Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, Lowell, through May 21. Tickets $26-$70, 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org