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Once upon a fast-receding time, everybody was talking about what was then called the Sexual Revolution, even those for whom it was as yet little more than a rumor. John Updike got himself onto the cover of Time in 1968 by writing “Couples,” a novel about what used to be called “wife-swapping” in a small Massachusetts town. (The gloweringly sober banner on the cover was “THE ADULTEROUS SOCIETY.”) A year later, Paul Mazursky hit big at the box office with “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” a screen comedy about two suburban couples who end up in bed together in a Las Vegas hotel….
These days, it’s almost touching to contemplate the far-off time when, in the darkly ironic words of Philip Larkin, sex was in the process of becoming “a brilliant breaking of the bank,/A quite unlosable game.” To that end, the New Group is now presenting an off-Broadway musical version of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” Skillfully compressed into a small-scale show with a six-person cast, it tracks Mazursky’s film closely, and if you remember the movie, it might make you smile.
But what if you don’t? What if, like most people under the age of 65, you’ve never heard of “Bob & Carol”? Unlike, say, “Groundhog Day” or “Tootsie,” it isn’t one of those beloved films of yesteryear that are the stuff commodity musicals are made of. Is the stage version artistically strong enough in its own right to overcome the disadvantage of not having a pre-sold audience going in?
Part of the problem with “Bob & Carol,” it turns out, is the source material. In Mazursky’s film, Bob and Carol (played in the film by Culp and Wood and in the musical by Joél Pérez and Jennifer Damiano) spend a weekend at a human-potential retreat in Big Sur (remember those?) and return home determined to become more authentic in every way. The point was that nice people who embrace freer love without fully understanding what they’re getting into are pulling the pin on a grenade that could blow up their lives. But the film, which was widely admired in 1969 for the sharpness of its satire, now comes across as lacking in satirical bite…
Not only does Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book fail to transcend the film’s limitations, but the songs, co-written by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green, are all soft-rock ballads that are presumably meant to suggest the lost world of the film but end up sounding more bland than anything else….
* * *Read the whole thing here.
The trailer for Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice:
“Style à la ‘Mod,’” a promotional featurette for the original 1969 film: