“I'm not a stalker,” trills Annie (Chandra Lee Schwartz) in Sleepless in Seattle: The Musical, after she's flown across the country to stand outside the houseboat of widowed father Sam (Tim Martin Gleason), whom she's never met. Debatable. But to cut down on the creep factor, Jeff Arch, Ben Toth and Sam Forman's several-years-in-production adaptation of the classic Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romance (inspired by its spirit animal An Affair to Remember, which was in turn a riff on 1939's Love Affair) has made several small tweaks to the script.
No longer is Annie a swoony romantic who falls for Sam after hearing his son call into a national advice show to find his dad a wife. Now she's a sensible reporter thrust on a plane by her boss/best friend (Sabrina Sloan), who demands she track down the story — and go on a date with the guy. Ladies, if your single, meddling, unlucky-in-love-herself BFF insists that dumping your fiancé for a stranger “doesn't sound crazy at all,” she's nuts.
This year, Sleepless in Seattle turns 20. Flirtation has changed. Today, Annie and Sam — and especially Sam's obsessive son, Jonah (a bold Joe West) — would have Googled each other in five minutes and Sam's radio nickname #SleeplessInSeattle would be a trending topic on Twitter. When Annie watches Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember and sighs, “You can't make this movie today,” she could be talking about the one she's in.
It would have been smart to update the story to make Sam a grumbling Internet meme, especially as the producers last summer fired the writers and pushed back opening night by a year so the script could undergo a much-publicized rewrite. But for nostalgia's sake — which is, after all, the only thing that sells tickets on Broadway anymore — this musical homage stays so true to 1993 that Jonah and his babysitter (Todd Buonopane) dance the Kid 'n' Play. A Winger-esque hair-metal guitar solo is the riskiest choice in the formulaic score.
The changes it does make are befuddling and counterproductive, like a hot-blooded number about Seattle singles bars during which the writhing ensemble sings about “microbrewed beer.”
Frankly, this story is already too silly to be heightened with songs. Nora Ephron's clever script was just sardonic enough to assure us that Sam and Annie couldn't believe this noncommunicative soul connection was happening to them, either. (At least in An Affair to Remember, Grant and Deborah Kerr got to spend five days on a ship talking.) Even more valuable was the national goodwill toward Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, the friendliest faces in Hollywood, who, crucially, had already convinced us of their chemistry by making out in Joe Versus the Volcano.
Alas, while stars Gleason and Schwartz are cute and sweet, and even individually charismatic, there's no way to root for their big romance when they're not even allowed to make eye contact until the show's final five minutes. They spend the rest of the running time singing separate songs on opposite ends of the stage, and even when director Sheldon Epps relents and lets them stand next to each other for a duet, they're so scared of acknowledging each other that it's like forcing a cat to look at itself in the mirror.
Instead, oddly, we find ourselves vowing allegiance to Annie's doomed-to-be-dumped fiance, Walter (Robert Mammana), a tender geek whose only crimes are his crippling allergies and the fact that his betrothed just isn't that into him.
Judging by the sincere sniffles in the theater when Annie and Sam finally hold hands on the top of the Empire State building, our hearts need to go out to the other hapless, hopelessly unappreciated men in the audience whose ladies dream of their own magic moment.
Hopefully, those women are also listening when Annie coos to Walter, “We're not like the movies — that's all a sham.”
Sleepless in Seattle: The Musical is at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through June 23. (626) 356-7529, pasadenaplayhouse.org
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