NY Review: 'The Last Smoker in America'

at the Westside Theatre

Reviewed by Suzy Evans

August 02, 2012

Photo by Joan Marcus
Smoking is the least of the "evils" in Bill Russell and Peter Melnick's "The Last Smoker in America," a one-note satirical musical about what might happen if government regulation went to extremes. In this case smoking is the target, with bans extending beyond bars and parks, and tobacco devotee Pam won't have it. While her husband, Ernie, a recovering smoker, and her video game–obsessed, wannabe-rapper son, Jimmy, try to stop her, Pam will always, as the show puts it, "fight for her right to light up."

Frankly, no one can blame her for smoking. The men in her life are animalistic and disrespectful—director Andy Sandberg takes this idea literally, having the actors mimic the actions of dogs—and she deserves a little me time. The blame can be laid on Russell and Melnick for not creating a substantial character arc for her. Pam's desires never change, and her fellow characters' attitudes toward those wants don't either, giving the show little heart. The abrupt ending is a cop-out and kills any hope of making a powerful political statement.

In an effort to create an off-kilter rock musical, Russell and Melnick have generated a sort of song-cycle ode to smoking, with schizophrenic music by Melnick. Book writer and lyricist Russell has found creative ways to refer to the practice and rhymes to go with them, but he varies style more than content. (I lost count of how many ballads Pam sings about her love of cigarettes.) Those that aren't about lighting up are fairly bigoted, covering blatantly offensive sexist and racist topics. There's a time and a place for the C-word and the N-word onstage; overuse kills the effect.

At least the cast is inherently likable, and the actors give full-out, endearing performances, despite the one-dimensional characters they portray. Natalie Venetia Belcon amps up the comedy as leering neighbor Phyllis, a former smoker and a born-again Christian who uses her religion like a weapon and is not as nice as she seems. It's disappointing that the talented Farah Alvin, as Pam, isn't given the chance to showcase her range as an actor, but her voice is still pleasant, though she takes the thin role too seriously at times. John Bolton does the opposite, having as much fun as possible with Ernie, while Jake Boyd overdoes everything as Jimmy, which is exactly what needs to be done. Jeff Croiter and Grant Yeager's lighting is nice for the dream sequences, a running motif that serves little purpose. Charlie Corcoran's mod set is attractive and illustrates the amount of funding behind the production.

"The Last Smoker in America" is a cri de coeur against governmental regulation. The market, of course, self-regulates, and that's exactly what word of mouth is likely to do for this shallow musical.

Presented by Andy Sandberg, Whitney Hoagland Edwards, Michael Palitz, and Stephanie Rosenberg at the Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St., NYC. Opened Aug. 2 for an open run. Mon., Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2:30 p.m. (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com. Casting by Binder Casting.

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