Tell Me on a Sunday, Andrew Lloyd Webber's song cycle musical, is many things. And in the intimacy of the Charleston Acting Studio production, there's an opportunity to savor them all in detail, up close and personal, as if you were inhaling the aromatic nuances hidden in a glass of wine.
Is that a hint of Elton John lingering at the edges of the musical score? It is. (Tell Me was originally written in 1979).
How about the "letters home" numbers? Is that a hint of mustiness? Well, they, along with a few other references, were updated for the 2003 production. The letters are now e-mails tapped out (in time with the music) on a laptop. Then there's the song about speed dating, a trend that only really took off in 2000.
And what's that tangy, almost brash scent? Is the main character, Emma from suburban London, a starry-eyed 27-year-old ready to take New York by storm? Yes! But we suspect her character could only have been written by a man. And one with a very limited understanding of female ambition.
For most of the action, Emma is unemployed, couch-surfing in a gal pal's New York apartment and hunting after the two things she needs most to make her dreams reality. A green card. And a man. Mostly a man. As Tell Me begins, Emma is the winsome ingenue, reminiscent of a stock Amy Adams character, and she remains resolutely so for an embarrassingly long stretch of the plot. No matter. Really. As Emma, Mary Fishburne outshines all these slightly dated, goofy elements and consigns them to the shadows. For that reason alone, Tell Me can be forgiven for being most concerned with Emma and her manhunt.
In her romantic quest, Emma tries out several ne'er do wells and sees each of them in the most generous light. There's Chuck, the drummer whose love drew her to this New York adventure to begin with and with whom she breaks up on her very first night in New York. Then there's the "movie guy," Sheldon Bloom, who takes her to Hollywood. Up next, the younger man, Joe, a software salesman who's out on the road most of the time and prompts the heart-wrenching title tune. Lastly, proof that Emma has become a real New York gal with all the right Sex and the City attitudes, she snags Paul, the married man with four children back home in Westport Connecticut with whom Emma shares a bed, some laughs, and no strings tying them together.
Fishburne handles the daunting challenge of the one-woman-show (75 minute long, no intermission) with so much energy, charm, and style that she's a slam dunk for the category "Unforgettable." Place a big talent in a small space and chances are good you'll witness some genuine theatrical magic unfold. That's what happens here.
Tell Me has yielded some of Lloyd Webber's best tunes and they're all in great form in this production. Immanuel A. Houston, on keyboard and synthesized orchestral accompaniment, adds a great deal to the festivities. Although he's hidden away behind a gauzy moonscape for the entire show, Houston trades some laugh out loud exchanges with Fishburne's Emma, particularly on the "Speed Dating" number. A very clever set design by Ryan Ahlert accommodates both the broad expanses of Emma's urban experience and the candid intimacy of her most private moments.
The highlight of Tell Me on a Sunday is the title song, appearing very near the end. Here, Lloyd Webber shifts away from stylized effervescence of the earlier numbers and plunges straight into Stephen Sondheim territory. Fishburne embraces the song with such tenacity that when her eyes well up, when her transformation from ingenue to adult takes place, the audience feels it, too. Up close and personal.