The new one-act musical The Last Smoker in America, which had its world premiere in 2010 at Contemporary American Theatre Company in Columbus, opened Off-Broadway last night to weak reviews. For the record, the creative team is Bill Russell (book, lyrics), Peter Melnick (music), Andy Sandberg (direction), AC Ciulla (choreography), Fred Lassen (music direction, orchestration), Charlie Corcoran (sets), Michael McDonald (costumes), Jeff Croiter and Grant Yeager (lights), and Bart Fasbender (sound). The cast includes John Bolton (Ernie), Farah Alvin (Pam), Jake Boyd (Jimmy), and Natalie Venetia Belcon (Phyllis).
Suzy Evans (Back Stage): 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. … At least the cast is inherently likable, and the actors give full-out, endearing performances, despite the one-dimensional characters they portray. … 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.
Melissa Maerz (Entertainment Weekly): All of this could have made for a very of-the-moment satire, especially at a time when health crusaders are rallying to outlaw everything from trans-fats to oversized soft drinks. But the jokes feel hopelessly outdated, with nods to Riverdance, emo music, goat cheese, political correctness, and other trends that haven’t felt relevant since the 1990s. Even the music belongs to another era. … Of course, maybe this is all part of the joke. If critics get insulted, then the musical has proven its point: America’s just way too uptight. C+
Andy Propst (Theater Mania): The show has a cute – and even timely – enough premise. … It’s the sort of idea with all the heightened details that could make for an amusing improv sketch, but Russell has stretched the premise to the breaking point, never building any real dramatic tension into the tale that supports 90 minutes of stage action. … When Russell’s book settles into a sort of genial sitcom mode, it actually can be charming, and Melnick has turned out a couple of lovely ballads … in this sadly underwhelming tuner.
Catherine Rampell (N.Y. Times): The Last Smoker in America has the spark of a smokin’-hot new musical, but a soggy book keeps it from ever fully igniting. … Peter Melnick’s pop-rock score is terrific, with multiple catchy melodies that will stick in your head like peanut butter. Bill Russell’s lyrics have their moments too. … The script … is the critically weak link. … Many of the book’s flaws have been papered over with what appears to be suitcases of cash … but bling, exploding robots, a colonial marching band and assorted prop gags can plug only so many plot holes.
Steven Suskin (Variety): The hysterically funny premise turns out, once onstage, to be resolutely not. The authors … are both men of talent; chalk it up as a bad idea gone worse. Buried in the mess are two songs with music worth salvaging, “Hangin’ Out in a Smoky Bar” and “You’re the Only Friend I’ve Got.” But that’s about it. The cast of four give it their all. … John Bolton, as the father, is the only one who comes out looking good. … Farah Alvin tries her darndest in an impossible role, while the other two Equity members have some embarrassing things to do and say.
Linda Winer (Newsday): Four talented actors mug and shriek through this belabored would-be satire about a time when smokers are jailed and their spouses fired for carrying the smell of tobacco on their clothes. … The show is only 90 minutes, but is loaded with stereotypes and padded with tangential scenes and songs that could well be plugged into many other musicals. … Andy Sandberg’s direction is as broad as the material, though AC Ciulla’s choreography does support some amusing production numbers.