- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

William Finn, the brilliant composer of such works as “The Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “A New Brain,” has often commented that the book is the bete noir of musicals. “Becoming George,” a new musical receiving its first staging at Alexandria’s MetroStage, is no exception.

As conceived by Patti McKenny and Doug Frew, “Becoming George” is not about 19th-century French author George Sand’s (Kat’ Taylor) work as a rabble-rousing writer, or as a proto-feminist, or as the lover of famous men Frederic Chopin, Alfred de Musset and Prosper Merimee.

Instead, the musical dwells on the former Aurore Dudevant’s sunset years, when she is a reflective duffer ruminating on past loves, the Franco-Prussian War, and the artistic development of the young Sarah Bernhardt (Meegan Midkiff).

What — did the show’s creators think George Sand’s life wasn’t interesting enough? Good heavens, she wrote 71 novels, numerous political pamphlets, 24 plays, and kept up a robust correspondence with the likes of Flaubert, Balzac, Walt Whitman, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She fled an early marriage to an abusive drunk, was a confidante of both artists and chambermaids, spoke fluent Latin and Greek, rode horses like a man, smoked cigars, and enjoyed numerous younger lovers (whom she called “secretaries”) until her death just shy of age of 72 at her beloved country estate Nohant.

George Sand’s greatest creation was herself, but all this is largely brushed aside in favor of a touchy-feely, “free to be you and me” message about becoming your own woman that is belabored until you can almost hear Helen Reddy singing in the wings.

If that’s not enough to make you want to impale yourself on a quill pen, the musical contains other characters who are harbingers of the self-help movement: Alexandre Dumas the younger (Greg Violand), who finally gets over the fact his father wrote better novels; the Prince (Brian Childers), who realizes he just wants to be liked (Is that so wrong?); and Sand’s peasant-class lover Gerard (Jason Hentrich), who tires of being a boy-toy and finds his place as a droning mouthpiece for the people.

The most egregious self-improvement project is La Bernhardt, who gives off not one whiff of the legendary talent we have come to associate with the actress. Miss Midkiff possesses an angelic face and an operatic soprano (which gets a little squeaky in the upper registers), but an actress with dramatic heft she’s not. You have trouble understanding why the strong-minded, impassioned Sand would be solicitous of such a ninny. Miss Taylor is a wise and intelligently benevolent presence as George Sand, and her voice is warmly reminiscent of cigars and cognac.

Some of the music, by Linda Eisenstein, is catchy and tuneful, in particular “My Quiet Country Life,” a tongue-in-cheek look at the rollicking bohemian lifestyle at Nohant; “Go Where the Girls Can’t Go,” full of brass and other masculine touches; and the subdued “Letters to the Night,” in which Sand recalls her years with Chopin in a song delicately echoing the composer’s musical cascades and flourishes. The lyrics contain moments of style and wit, but the rhymes are a bit heavy at times, and the constant stream of literary references put you in mind of Norton’s Anthology of Literature with a downbeat.

The layered, intertwining story lines of “Becoming George” recall another musical about an artist, Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” But where Mr. Sondheim’s masterpiece exudes brilliance and invention in its evocation of the artistic process, “Becoming George” is merely a sketch that shows tiny glints of promise.

**

WHAT: “Becoming George,” book and lyrics by Patti McKenny and Doug Frew, music by Linda Eisenstein

WHERE: MetroStage, 1201 North Royal St., Alexandria

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through May 28.

TICKETS: $35 to $40

PHONE: 703/548-9044

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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