07/25/2013 02:56 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2013

First Nighter: City Center's "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road" Hits Bumps

Two-thirds of the way through I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road--revived for the Encores! Off-Center series at City Center--39-nine-year-old actress and cabaret performer Heather Jones (Renée-Elise Goldsberry) sings "Old Friend" to her long-time manager and ex-lover Joe Epstein (Frederick Weller). Introduced when the musical bowed at the Public in 1978, the folk-ish number has become a small-room staple and probably the most beloved song partners Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford have ever written.
And it's a beauty. A tribute to friendship anywhere, it may have particular meaning for New York City dwellers. So many of them have left family in other parts of the country to live in the big town that they count on friends who've done the same for their major support. This population may respond most sympathetically to the wise and poignant "Old Friend" refrain that includes the words "nothing lasts, people change."
How true the sentiments are, and how ironic that 35 years on they should come back to haunt Ford and, mostly, lyricist-librettist Cryer. For while perhaps some things do last, not everything does, and people changing doesn't help restore things that haven't lasted.
Which is a roundabout way of saying I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road doesn't have the impact it had back in that notable day. Worse, appreciated then as a strong feminist statement, it now seems practically antiquated in its outlook and outrage. Much of the complaints Heather makes about her infuriating plight--they're incorporated as skits worked into the new act she's about to debut--may have seemed necessarily blunt then but now come across as simplistic, as crude, as insultingly humorless.
Even more laughingly ironic is how time has changed the attitude Cryer's book has towards Joe. He's unashamedly written as a stereotypical chauvinistic male with apparently a certain show-biz expertise. But how dumb is he? Arriving to preview the new material Heather has written to express herself truthfully as a single mother approaching 40 in an inhospitable society, Joe listens to several of the new songs--with their interpolated unfunny sketches. When he's had enough, he voices objections. In 2013--if not in 1978--Joe's resistance is right on the money just about every time.
Yes, he's foolish to object to Heather's stating her age. But on the other hand, why is he surprised to learn Heather's age now? If he and Heather had an affair some time ago, didn't he know it then?
Whatever he knew or didn't, let's hear it for male-pig Joe's performance instincts. He can't be faulted on recognizing the skit breaks as nothing more than cliché rants few audiences are going to appreciate. Were Heather taking this act on the road for today's ticket buyers, they'd be telling her in no uncertain terms to hit the road. The otherwise, dim-witted Joe at least knows that much.
Actually, he has such an ear for what the masses will respond to that when Heather balks at adding an old song of hers she's grown to dislike called "In a Simple Way I Love You," he presses for it. Later in the proceedings, after 24-year-old guitarist Jake (Jason Rabinowitz), who has a crush on Heather, has reprised the ballad, the audience carries on with unmistakable enthusiasm. Joe's right again. He's already been right as well when he insisted earlier on Heather's opening item "Natural High" (about the thrill of singing with a rock band) ending not wistfully, as she's arranged it, but in a crescendo.
Oh, that shrewd Joe, and oh that confused Heather! They're handy examples of the lyric "nothing lasts, people change." Whereas in 1978, Heather represented a large segment of the women fighting fervently for raised consciousness, she now impresses as a woman who wants social improvements but is going about it the wrong way. For his part, Joe--whom Cryer designed as the easiest kind of caricature--is getting a revenge along the lines of the old saying "what goes around comes around."
Putting aside the unfortunately dated caliber of the material, director Kathleen Marshall, always attuned to the material she's handed, does a firm job of extracting the most from it and then enhancing it with her choreography. Goldsberry has a strong voice, as do Christina Sajous and Jennifer Sanchez, who play, respectively back-up-singer friends Alice and Cheryl--all to the songs' benefit.
The scenes between Heather and Joe are as gritty as they are due to the conviction Goldsberry and Weller bring to them. Weller, recently off-Broadway in Neil LaBute's Reasons to be Happy, in which men predictably aren't so women-friendly (this is LaBute, friends), certainly retains the required emoting knack.
Since I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road takes place during a rehearsal in a boite (Derek McLane's approximation of a '60s India-influenced intimate-room environment), the musicians, billed as The Liberated Man's Band, are prominent. In addition to Rabinowitz, they're Chris Fenwick at the piano, Alec Berlin on electric guitar, George Farmer on bass, and Damian Bassman on percussion. Occasionally uttering a comic line or two, they play robustly and contribute to what invigorating life the production has.
Incidentally, at a point where Heather gives in to an especially extended spate of complaints, three of the musicians understandably begin playing poker. I wondered if by any stretch of the imagination, the game in which they were indulging was--as with Stanley Kowalski and his cronies at the Streetcar Named Desire fade-out--five-card stud.