Review: ‘TouchTones’ at Arden Theatre Company

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TouchTones is a new musical by playwright/lyricist Michael Hollinger and composer Robert Maggio. Directed by Emmanuelle Delpech, it delves into the romantic relationship between Christine and Justin, two young people who have vowed to abstain from sex until they are married. When Christine discovers that Justin has been spending his free time dialing up a phone sex line called TouchTones – the show is set in 1999, when such services were constantly advertising on late night television – she decides to investigate the company. She ends up finding much more about the company – and about herself – than she ever could have dreamed.

Alex Keiper and Michael Doherty. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Alex Keiper and Michael Doherty. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Alex Keiper and Michael Doherty are well-matched as the naïve and quirky young couple. Keiper adeptly portrays her young and innocent character’s sexual and emotional growing pains. Doherty is hilarious as he grapples with Justin’s own issues and reacts to the fallout from Christine’s choices.

What makes TouchTones especially entertaining is its depiction of ordinary life and problems with humor, somewhat reminiscent of Neil Simon. Underpinning the humor are the rather serious themes of abstinence and sexuality. The contemporary music is an additional delight: Hollinger’s lyrics utilize informal speech and rhyme, while Maggio contributes straightforward, accessible melodies and pleasant harmonies. Musical Director Ryan Touhey leads a small combo of piano, reeds and percussion.

Keiper and Doherty are supported by an experienced ensemble who bring to life both the score and Melanie Cotton’s dynamic choreography. April Ortiz, as a TouchTones employee, moved me to tears in her solo, “What is Wrong.” Darick Pead (as Brad, another TouchTones employee) is also a strong singer and actor and is fittingly cast to contrast with the main couple. For example, in his duet with Christine, his smooth and well-produced voice is part of the character’s charm. In addition, Brad’s bravado contrasts with Justin’s insecurity and Christine’s inexperience. Joilet F. Harris as Pearl, the sassy owner of TouchTones, possesses a supple and rich voice, which resonates musically and embodies her character. Kevin R. Free and Jess Conda round out the marvelous ensemble with admirable comedic timing, flexible movement and solid vocalism.

The ensemble. Photo by Mark Garvin.
The ensemble. Photo by Mark Garvin.

My favorite songs are “Let Her Out,” “You Gotta Be Who They Want” (which spotlights the entire cast), “Circles” (a solo for Keiper) and “See Me–Ready” (a Keiper/Doherty duet). The back-and-forth shifts between speech and singing in the composition work especially well. The show moves appropriately fast and the musical numbers and conversations transition seamlessly.

This is an amusing musical comedy (with a few serious moments) that had the audience laughing for much of its two-hour running time. Thanks to the carefully constructed book and score, and the talents of the remarkable cast, every word was understandable and the acting believable.

The Arden’s Arcadia Stage is a small and intimate space, and the production crew and cast work it to their advantage. The set, designed by Tim Mackabee, swivels between Christine’s living room and the TouchTones offices. Spaces for monologues and vignettes are achieved with moveable furniture, lighting by Mike Inwood, and sound by Rick Sims. Alison Roberts’ costumes contribute to the down-to-earth, approachable atmosphere of the musical.

TouchTones explores the lives of some ordinary people, with problems we can all relate to—and everybody has fun in the process!

The musical was developed through the Independence Foundation’s New Musical Works Initiative, which included workshop productions at the Arden and Villanova University. There will be post-show discussions after the performances on November 2, 8, 12, 15 and 26.

Running time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Composer Robert Maggio and playwright/lyricist Michael Hollinger. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Composer Robert Maggio and playwright/lyricist Michael Hollinger. Photo by Mark Garvin.

TouchTones plays through December 3, 2017 at the Arcadia Stage at the Arden Theatre Company – 40 North Second Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 922-1122, or purchase them online.