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Review: 'Sleepless in Seattle,' but not for the old reasons

Awash in music, "Sleepless in Seattle," Nora Ephron's 1993 film starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, almost makes sense as a stage musical. That is, until you start considering who could compose a score to compete with a soundtrack that includes "As Time Goes By," "Make Someone Happy" and "Stand by Your Man."

Stephen Sondheim, a canny fellow, evidently wasn't interested. Ben Toth and Sam Forman, the composer and lyricist assembled for "Sleepless in Seattle — The Musical," which had its world premiere Sunday at Pasadena Playhouse, evidently were. They replaced another team, which departed when the show was postponed last year. That team should count its blessings.

What adjective can I employ to describe a musical with an opening number that made me believe I was watching a commercial for eHarmony? Is there a word to describe a pop score so nondescript that it sounds as if a computer program had drawn from an archive of early 1990s songs that never made it onto the charts?

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To tally the clichés of Forman's lyrics would be as tedious as counting grains of sand. "Dreams are coming true each day" is a leitmotif, though how can a critic not succumb to despair when confronted with musical numbers of nonsensical enthusiasm, hoary sentiment and jejune rhymes?

The film was built on a scenario — a young son calls into a pop psychologist's radio program to get advice on how to help his widower father find love again, and a woman engaged to be married to a cipher with crippling post-nasal drip hears the dad talking on her car radio and feels destiny calling her.

Sam and Annie are kept apart until the final scene at the Empire State Building, where, in a homage to "An Affair to Remember," they are united as only movie characters can be.

The situation doesn't bear scrutiny. The main reason Sam, an architect who lives in Seattle, and Annie, a journalist who lives in Baltimore, should be together is that they are played by Hanks and Ryan, who are required by the rules of the cinematic universe to pair off on screen.

The Sam and Annie of Sheldon Epps' flat-footed production hardly have the same chemistry. Indeed, there's nothing very compelling about the prospect of Tim Martin Gleason's mundane Sam and Chandra Lee Schwartz's generically sparkling Annie getting together.

In fact, both could do just as well if not better if they stayed put on their sections of the map projected onto a set bedecked with screens and winding staircases in a production design that is as hectic as it is unprepossessing.

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I secretly wished that Jeff Arch, the book writer who wrote the original story for the movie and co-wrote the screenplay with Ephron and David S. Ward, could have written me into the musical to reason with the love birds. Listen, you guys: Think of your careers and checkbooks — a cross-country move is disruptive and expensive. There are plenty of eligible partners in Seattle and Baltimore!

As a rule of thumb, it's never a good idea for adults to follow the romantic advice of a boy still in grade school. The musical's creators have upped the age of Jonah (Joe West) to 10, but this piece of wisdom still applies. Fortunately, nothing too detrimental can occur in a work in which realism is giddily chucked out the window.

West's Jonah is an angrier Cupid than his movie counterpart. Always on the brink of a tantrum, he doesn't have a particularly affectionate relationship with Gleason's Sam. Their body language suggests teacher and student rather than father and son.

It doesn't help that Arch's book sidesteps the grief that Ephron focuses on at the beginning of her film. West was obviously cast for his terrific singing voice and his precocious ability to hold the stage, but the emotional stakes are lowered for all the characters when they skirt the loss.

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What makes Hanks' Sam and Ryan's Annie so appealing is that they're not off-the-charts special, only modestly above average, though in an idealized way. Moviegoers, no matter what they look like or how successful they are, can identify with them. They reflect how we'd like to see ourselves.

Gleason, who sings well but comes off as a preppy stiff, and Schwartz, who acts perky but has some difficulty staying in key, can't help living in the shadow of their predecessors.

Instead of distinguishing attributes, each is given a sidekick. Sabrina Sloan's Becky, Annie's boss at the newspaper, steals the spotlight whenever she's onstage. Unfortunately, she's saddled with some of the show's worst lyrics. Urging Annie to take a chance on the man known as "Sleepless in Seattle," she deserves combat pay for having to sing (with a straight face), " 'Cause I've got an intuition,/You should listen to your heart,/I'm the key to your ignition,/Time to start."

Todd Buonopane's Rob, Sam's buddy, is defined by his chubbiness much the same way that Katharine Leonard's Victoria, Sam's date, is defined by her squawking laugh. These aren't characters — they're characteristics. Sitcoms are generally more generous to their actors.

Supposedly situated in the early 1990s, the show has difficulty pinpointing its time and place. At one point it seems as if we've traveled back to the 1970s and stumbled into a "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" singles bar. (Spencer Liff's choreography sets the ensemble in desperate dating motion.) The casual, slightly frizzy style had me thinking of my college days in the 1980s.

And the kooky image of New York — crime-ridden but really just one big friendly party — is completely fabricated. The whole production is set in a theatrical no man's land.

All of this, of course, would be immaterial if the musical would renew our hope in the destiny of love. But this "Sleepless in Seattle" left me too worried about the state of the American musical to get goosepimply about romance.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Sleepless in Seattle — The Musical'

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 23.

Ticket: $64 to $107

Contact: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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