NEW YORK, April 9 (UPI) -- Playwrights Horizons is inaugurating its $27 million theater complex on 42nd Street with "My Life With Albertine," a musical based on Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" that almost but not quite captures the youthful romantic fascination that consumes the protagonist of that seven-volume novel.
With a concise adaptation of Proust's sprawling narrative by Richard Nelson, one of America's most prolific playwrights, and a richly melodic score by Ricky Ian Gordon, this new work has much of the charm that made "James Joyce's "The Dead," a previous Nelson musical produced by Playwrights Horizons, a Tony Award winner. Except for one miscast role, it makes for a perfect evening in the theater.
That role is Marcel Proust himself, as a spoiled young man coming to terms with his first obsession with a member of the opposite sex in the form of 17-year-old Albertine, whom he suspects is carrying on lesbian affairs behind his back.
Chad Kimball plays the role with too many homosexual flourishes to make his affair with Albertine completely believable, although he is never less than riveting in his eccentric characterization of Marcel in love. At least he is more visible to the audience than he was as the dancing cow in last season's Broadway revival of "Into the Woods."
Proust (1871-1922) is also represented as an older man in the role of The Narrator, played with such subtle grace by Brent Carver that he makes the audience feel that this is what Proust was really like, possibly a bisexual but certainly no more effeminate than most polished Parisian gentlemen of the pre-World War I era. Those who admired Carver in "The Kiss of the Spider Woman" on Broadway will not be surprised to find him completely satisfying in yet another demanding role.
The theme of the show is reflected in the lyrics "Every time I look, I see a different Albertine" and "Whenever she moved her head, she created a fresh woman." Marcel, an independently wealthy dilettante, meets Albertine on a visit to a fashionable resort, Balbec, with his grandmother. An unwanted orphan living with her aunt, Albertine has no problem accepting Marcel's invitation to move into his fashionable Paris apartment.
In scene after scene, including one in a Paris cabaret, Albertine treats Marcel coolly and focuses her attention on women friends, including an openly lesbian singer named Mlle. Lea. Even when Albertine does offer the jealous Marcel affection, she does it on her own terms, leaving him to beg, "Don't hurt me, don't leave me, don't lie to me." In he end, she does all three, leaving only a note behind when she leaves.
On reading the note, the Narrator addresses the audience with these final lines: "Could I ever know you? Could you ever know me? Like explorers who must search for what they know they'll never find, it is the search that gives us life."
Kelli O'Hara, who starred opposite John Lithgow in last season's "Sweet Smell of Success" on Broadway, is adorable as the independent Albertine, described by her aunt as "a little minx" but most probably just a modern woman in the making. O'Hara has a sweet singing voice and a luminous stage presence, making it believable that she could turn the head of such an experienced predator as Mlle. Lea, played with lusty flair by Emily Skinner.
Two minor roles -- Marcel's disapproving servant and his grandmother -- are taken by a single actress, Donna Lynne Champion, and the cast is rounded out by Caroline McMahon, Brooke Sunny Moriber, Laura Woyasz, and Nicholas Belton.
Thomas Lynch has created a paneled, expensive-looking Belle Epoque living room based on photographs of Proust's apartment, and it is hauntingly lit by lighting designer James F. Ingalls. A golden proscenium arch is set up within the room, as though for a private theatrical, allowing for various changes of scene as Marcel recounts his memories of Albertine. Susan Hilferty's period costume designs are deliciously Edwardian.
Playwright Nelson has directed his own show. He claims that 80 percent of the spoken lines are taken from Proust's novel verbatim, but he has taken some liberties. The memoir that Albertine of the novel inspired Marcel to write has become a sonata, a perfectly acceptable conceit since Marcel of the musical is a composer instead of a novelist.
Gordon, the show's composer, said he had the music of early 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc in mind when he wrote the score. He and Nelson collaborated on the lyrics, drawing inspiration from Proust and contemporary writers.
"My Life With Albertine" is the fourth Nelson-written show produced in New York in the past two years. The others were "The General from America," a play about Benedict Arnold, "Franny's Way," inspired by a J. D. Salinger character, and "Madame Melville," concerning a teacher's seduction of a young male student. The 52-year-old playwright has turned out a work for the stage every year since he was 25.