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Theater Review: “A Second Chance” at Signature Theatre

A new two-person musical flits between touching and overly earnest.

Jenna (Diane Sutherland) and Dan (Brian Sutherland) share a toast in “A Second Chance.” Photograph by Christopher Mueller.

☆☆☆ out of four

How many of us would relish the chance for a do-over? For Ted Shen, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics for A Second Chance, currently playing at Signature Theatre, life gave him two such opportunities: one tragic, one intriguing. First, after the death of his wife, Shen unexpectedly found love with another woman, which presumably inspired the plot of his debut work. Second, at the age of 53, he left his job as an investment banker with more than $70 million in shares and started pursuing a new career in musical theater.

If only all frustrated corporate drones could be so lucky. A Second Chance is a touching, occasionally funny work that only sporadically trips up on its own earnestness. Dan (Brian Sutherland) is a widower who meets Jenna (Diane Sutherland) at a party while still grieving the loss of his wife. Although considerably muted by sorrow, he’s charmed by her kooky energy, and when the two run into each other on the Lexington Avenue Expressway, they make tentative plans for a date, even though neither appears to have high hopes for the liaison. Jenna, although instantly attracted to the handsome “banker who isn’t a jerk,” is getting over a messy divorce, and Dan’s heart very much belongs to his late wife, while he’s also cosseted by a number of overprotective friends.

This production gains much of its strength from its two leads, real-life husband and wife, both of whom have impeccable résumés (Brian starred in Broadway’s The Sound of the Shade; Diane in The Light in the Piazza, 1776, Cats, A Chorus Line), although Brian is so restrained as the quiet, pensive Dan that it’s hard not to long for more from the character. Lyrics, while occasionally droll, are often clunky, as in a scene set in a bar where the two discuss their mutual love of Mad Men. The few spoken-word scenes, however, are much stronger, and a number of songs are gorgeous. “Pain in my heart, perfect,” Jenna sings while contemplating her lover’s untouchable, flawless wife. “Till death do us part, perfect.” As Jenna, an irrepressibly cheerful aesthete, Diane Sutherland is strong enough to make us see her exactly as Dan does—an irresistible pull back to optimism.

Director Jonathan Butterell (Broadway’s The Light in the Piazza, Nine) does a nice job moving the couple from location to location on a mostly empty set. Clear Perspex furniture onstage shifts around to represent different locations—Jenna’s therapist’s office, a subway car, a house, Central Park—along with images projected onto the theater’s blank back wall. The show also benefits from its five live musicians on piano, bass, drums, flute, and clarinet, who add considerable depth to the songs. Shen, a former jazz musician, occasionally tries to be too clever with some of the music (which often veers into the atonal), but on the whole, this is one of the most accessible and enjoyable new musicals to have played at Signature over the last few years, even if it could benefit from taking itself a trifle less seriously.

The irony, of course, is that Signature’s American Musical Voices Project—which brought audiences Ricky Ian Gordon’s Sycamore Trees and Joseph Thalken’s And the Curtain Rises, among others—was entirely funded by Shen, who gave the venue $1 million in 2006 to help fund its growth. But funding aside, Shen’s second act as a composer looks like it could be a productive one.

A Second Chance is at Signature Theatre through December 11. Tickets ($40) are available through Signature’s Web site.