In 1712 Alexander Pope wrote a mock-heroic narrative poem, “The Rape of the Lock,” published in expanded form in 1717, in which he satirically commented on a true event. This was a dispute that arose between the families of one Lord Petre and the woman he loved, Arabella Fermor, when, without asking, he snipped a lock of her hair. Pope’s poem was written in the hope it would “comically merge the two” families by noting how silly the whole thing was, although he also underlined contemporary attitudes on women’s place as decorative accessories in a patriarchal society. Arabella, renamed Belinda, is surrounded by virginal “sylphs,” parodized versions of the gods of goddesses of epic poetry, whose mission is to protect Belinda (especially her hair) from inappropriate advances. Pope’s poem is the chief inspiration for UNLOCK’ED, the new musical at the Duke, directed and choreographed by Marlo Hunter, and presented by the Prospect Theatre Company.
The plot circles around the romantic aspirations of dashing Roderick Shearing, the Baron of Windsorloch (Sydney James Harcourt); his attractively nerdy, book-obsessed brother, Edwin (A.J. Shively); Belinda (Jillian Gottlieb), an early 18th-century version of the dumb blonde; and her more practically-minded, redheaded stepsister, Clarissa (Jennifer Blood), who often narrates the action in rhymed verse. There is a lot of maneuvering by the brothers with scissors to clip a lock of Belinda’s hair. She would sooner die than trim her locks, being so besotted with her luxurious tresses that she has personified them with names (Lotty, Letty, and Beatrice, for example) and even sings with them. When she discovers that one of them has been snatched, she ends act one by screaming, “Beatrice!”
Through it all wander three actors and three actresses in double roles: the men (Chris Gunn, Adam Daveline, Hansel Tan) play both ragamuffin gnomes and gentlemen of the court. The former speak in syntax reminiscent of a cross between cockney and the Golem in THE HOBBIT, while the latter, with names like Sir Flittybud, Lord Inconstantine, and Lord Littlewit, wearing outlandish wigs (with plumes) and silken finery, are effeminate British fops. The women (Catherine LeFrere, Maria Couch, and Chandler Reeves) play both attractive sylphs and maidens of the court, their vivid gowns and wigs in the latter roles paralleling those of the three gentlemen.
The show, which won a Richard Rodgers Award in 2004 and was originally seen at the 2007 New York Musical Festival, does not slavishly follow Pope, and introduces elements from other sources as well, including Shakespeare, but, for all its occasional charm and musical pleasures, it never quite comes together in a more than mildly amusing way. It’s reminiscent of other fairy tale musicals (from ONCE UPON A MATTRESS to RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA) in its whimsical, self-mocking attitudes, where the actors more or less wink at the audience as if we’re all in this droll romantic charade together (ain’t we got fun?). You get a whiff of this from the program note on the setting: “Back Then-ish. Across the Pond-ish.” Characterizations are skin deep; everyone is handsome, pretty, or cute; the costumes (by Amy Clark) are lavish, clever, and colorful; the scenery (by Wilson Chin and David L. Arsenault), chiefly a bulls-eye patterned floor and three benches within a three-quarters round arrangement, is brightly imaginative and agreeable; the lighting (by Cory Pattak) is cheery and fanciful; the choreography, more like staged movement than dance, is energetic, with one memorable number involving giant playing cards during a game of War; and there is a pervasive sense of playfulness from start to finish.
What can get lost in this world of tongue-in-cheek make-believe, however, is honesty and truth, with performances so lacquered over with directorial choices designed to create a stylized fantasy world that they become cartoonish and ultimately unaffecting. It’s the kind of show that, however clever it may be, makes you wonder, “Why should I care?” It takes a remarkable talent to overcome this kind of stylistic imposition; apart from Jennifer Blood and Jillian Gottlieb, who come closest, the company by and large fails to manage this, although most of them do fine work not only in establishing their stock personas but in singing the quite listenable score (lyrics by Sam Carner; music by Derek Gregor). Unlike the too frequently cerebral style of John Michael Lachiusa and his followers, several of Gregor's tunes have the kind of tuneful appeal that is gradually vanishing from the musical theatre. Standout numbers included Belinda’s “The Hair Song,” Belinda and Edwin’s “Off to the East,” and the Baron and Edwin’s “A Delicate Thing.” Regardless of its distinguished sources, or maybe because of them, however, Sam Carner’s book remains clunky, too talkative, and more smile than laughter inducing.
UNLOCK’D is around two hours and 20 minutes long, far longer than such slight material requires. Where were those scissors when they were really needed?