Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice based on the Columbia Pictures film written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, with music by Duncan Sheik, book by Jonathan Marc Sherman and lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green is a lightly satiric, musical comedy, with mellow, soulful music. The production, like its titular film counterpart, hearkens back to an easier time before AIDS, STDS, the debacle of the Viet Nam War and the cultural stresses afterward, when the country faced chaotic divisiveness that was not easily answered by later political administrations.
Directed by Scott Elliott, the production is a delight with adorable actors portraying the thirty-something married couples Carol (Jennifer Damiano) and Bob (Joél Pérez), Ted (Michael Zegen) and Alice (Ana Nogueira) who try to redefine themselves according to the hot pants, younger generational trends which tout the rejection of binding sexual mores and strictures.
This was the time of open marriages, when free love was being embraced as revelational. Various generations either looked askance in horror or savored the sex with hallucinogens and weed. So instead of rotting in aging and being left behind, Bob and Carol take a break from the kids, go to a New Age type resort, and embrace the “new” concepts of this inner freedom and tranquility.
Bob and Carol begin the arc of the story development and conflicts after they return from their growth experience at the retreat (like Esalen) led by the director (who is also the band leader) portrayed by Suzanne Vega. The experience “opens” them up to a new world of freedom using the techniques we have all come to know today (meditation, primal screams, intense feeling expressions, etc.).
They return home believing that the experience translates into their daily lives by allowing them to understand their values, their “ethos,” and their capacity to break away into new experiences. Of course one of the most important is extending the boundaries of their marriage and expanding themselves to include acceptance of their partner’s actions whatever they may be. Bob initiates this extension by having sex, in an unfaithful act, which surprisingly Carol accepts and answers with one of her own. Both affirm, “It was just sex, not love.”
For Ted and Alice who essentially watch and don’t indulge, their learning is vicarious, but they can’t move beyond the boundaries of their own morals and sensibility of love. They judgmentally remain within the strictures of their marriage vows and monogamy. The contrast between the two couples is telling: here are the liberals and the conservatives. But beneath each conservative heart is the quest to be liberal. And in this production, it is no less so.
As you watch the events unfold and empathize with the characters along their journeys of self-discovery, you can’t help but fall a bit in love with them. They are so cute in their questioning searches as they soldier on to their discoveries with quasi-comical seriousness. Watching liberal couple Bob and Carol explore the outer limits of love and marriage, extramarital affairs, infidelity, sexuality and enlightened contrast between love and sex, we are along for their ride because it is neither shocking nor lustful, nor pornographic. It just is.
Considering what has transpired between then (1969) and now, the perniciousness of sexual plagues and wildness of Studio 54 that gave rise to them, which followed the “free love” generation, by comparison, these couples are sweet neophytes. The production mirrors this laid-back pleasantness in mood and tone delivered by Sheik’s balancing music, sung with fluidity, smoothness and grace by Grammy winner Suzanne Vega, and with melodic lyricism by the ensemble.
The characters’ “new” sexual endeavors infuse the production with the mild raciness of the 1969 film. The original which spawned a later TV show was a comedy satire about the cultural mores transformation. A success at the box office, it did have Oscar-winning nominations for the actors who played Ted (Elliot Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon).
Overall, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a retrospective and homage to the the culture and class who merely dipped lightly in with their toes as they approached the swirling currents of social change. They accomplished just enough to stimulate themselves, then slid back into their comfort zones measuring their lives with coffee spoons as they dabbled with introspection.
Sheik’s music and the ironic Suzanne Vega as band leader, “mistress of ceremonies” reintroduce for our time a derivation of pop’s easy listening. As the overarching guiding light of threaded musical commentary, Suzanne Vega’s lilting, sensuous voice reveals these four characters as she editorializes their journey beginning with Bob and Carol’s stay at the retreat and their “enlightened” return when they share their enlivening experiences with their conservative friends Ted and Alice.
But as the bonds between the couples loosen, the audience becomes intrigued. Ted and Alice warm up to their friends’ “exploits.” Bob and Carol appear sophisticated, cool and free in their “open” marriage. The men and women separately sing about and discuss their sexuality and their spouses which leads each to consider their lives with their partners. The songs eventually reveal that each couple is inspired to reaffirm their love for each other.
But we know what’s coming: “monkey see, monkey do”! Humorously, the two couples push the envelope by spending a night together in the bedroom with interesting results. Ultimately, they discover the vitality of loving one individual with intimacy and true spiritual bonding which can only happen when each member of the couple reveals that they are vulnerable and need help to receive the intimacy and beauty of love from their spouse.
The production works on many levels and is just what is needed at this time and place in a tumultuous social and political fabric that is too frightening to contemplate and whose nightly news and snarky, edgy, social and cultural reports are the antithesis of entertainment. Thus, the concept of “the open marriage” which Bob and Carol investigate with Ted and Alice with the quips and satiric jokes laced in with clever writing by Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book becomes a relief.
There is no heavy lifting here, nothing more profound and mysterious than how and why we fall in love with each other which is a wonderful “thing” to contemplate. It is this that engages us and immerses us with this throwback to another time. And as we contemplate and review this historical retrospective of the social and cultural mores of that time, we also enjoy the costumes and the California dreaming liquidity of the music so we are able to ride on the waves of the production’s serenity.
The ensemble and director have established the right tenor for the comedic elements. And Sheik’s music is subtly, appropriately emotional as the characters search themselves and each other to understand the mysteries of love.
Special kudos to Kelly Devine’s musical staging and to the following creatives: Derek McLane (scenic design) Jeff Mahshie (costume design) Jeff Croiter (lighting design) Jessica Paz (sound design). Additional kudos to Duncan Sheik for the orchestrations, Jason Hart for music supervision, vocal arrangements and additional orchestrations and Antoine Silverman for music coordination.
The New Group’s presentation of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice runs with no intermission until 22nd March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.