It’s risky to create a stage musical based on a movie that everyone over 30 knows by heart. And unlike Legally Blonde or Bring It On, Sleepless in Seattle is no cult favorite — it’s just a favorite. Not surprisingly, Sleepless in Seattle — The Musical has taken years (and a rotating roster of collaborators) to get to its world premiere this month at the Pasadena Playhouse, where it runs through June 23. Like many relationships at their beginning, this Sleepless has potential but is far from a perfect match.
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are indelibly inked into our collective consciousness as Sam and Annie. So stars Tim Martin Gleason and Chandra Lee Schwartz have their work cut out for them. With his good looks and easy rapport with his onstage son, Jonah (Joe West of Broadway?s A Christmas Story), Gleason succeeds in separating himself from Hanks’ performance — even when he?s reciting dialogue lifted directly from the film (the show’s book is by Jeff Arch). Schwartz, on the other hand, mostly does a spot-on imitation of Meg Ryan. Her big voice carries through some challenging songs, including the sweet ”Not Like in the Movies,” and her youthful spark matches well with both of her love interests (Robert Mammana is quite good as boring accountant Walter). But she never manages to make the character her own.
There are two truths I hold to be self-evident about the 1993 more-rom-than-com. The first is that Rosie O?Donnell steals every scene she’s in as best friend Becky. And the second is that the cute kid Jonah, played by Ross Malinger in the film, grates on your nerves after a while. In the stage version, these premises are both still true. Becky, played with panache by Sabrina Sloan (American Idol: Season 6) deserves at least one more big song, and Jonah, played by the precocious West does a solid job but really needs at least one less number.
Ben Toth’s score, with lyrics by Sam Forma, is generally fun but forgettable. The standout song is ”Out There,” which opens and closes the show and is reprised several times in between. And numbers like the Times Square-set ”Welcome to New York” and ”Getting Hot in Here,” which turns a singles bar into a den of sin, are truly cringeworthy. Spencer Liff’s mostly sloppy choreography also does the material no favors.
Director Sheldon Epps and his collaborators clearly aim to keep Sleepless firmly planted in the pre-cell phone, pre-Internet ’90s — all the way down to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bedspread in Jonah?s room. Unfortunately, this makes the show feel like a music-laced facsimile of the movie. By updating the story, they could have swapped the bags of letters for emails and tweets.
Still, some aspects of the production are effective. With creative staging and lighting design, the silhouette of radio talk show host Dr. Marcia Fieldstone (Cynthia Ferrer) comes to life and screen backdrops of the Seattle skyline remind the audience of where ”Sleepless” makes his home — not that it really matters. The show smartly cuts extraneous characters from the movie (i.e., Sam’s friend who books the fateful NYC trip, played by Gaby Hoffmann), and adds a diverse ensemble of daters looking for ”the one” in their own quirky ways. It’s a cute way to drive home the overall theme of this modern fairy tale: As my grandma says, every pot has its cover. B?