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Theater Review: “Spin” at Signature Theatre

A new musical based on a hit Korean film has definite potential.

James Gardiner as the host of the reality television show Idol Chatter in Spin. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

When Carolyn Cole shyly approaches the stage and starts singing, eventually crescendoing into a killer high note, it’s hard to avoid transforming into a teenybopper American Idol audience member in the process, squealing and cheering in approval. The girl can wail.

Such frenetic applause wouldn’t be out of place. Signature Theatre’s Spin: A New Musical, part of its Siglab series of shows in workshop form, takes place in a universe similar to the Ryan Seacrest-hosted show. Cole plays Makalo, an unlikely contestant on a show called Idol Chatter, a singing competition that has yet to receive national attention though it’s hosted by a former boy-band singer, Evan Peterson (James Gardiner). It doesn’t give away much to say that Makalo (performing under the name Adonna) ended up on the show after seeking out the dad she never knew, and the musical, based on the Korean film Speedy Scandal, is as much about their attempts to piece a relationship together as it is an amusing satire of the music industry.

Still a work in progress, Spin, with a book from Brian Hill and direction from Eric Schaeffer, can be problematic at times. With almost 30 musical numbers, including a few too many expositional songs (like the “Family Tree” routine, in which Evan tries to explain a white lie to Makalo’s young son, Jesse), it could use some trimming. There are also some structural issues. An intensely choreographed medley, also named “Spin,” falls awkwardly after curtain call. One character, the photographer Danny (Stephen Russell Murray), has creepy promise at first as a sinister-seeming stalker, but the show hurriedly fits him into a more integral role later, a transition that feels abrupt. The show also has the tendency to be schmaltzy, particularly in the climactic “What If?” when Peterson looks back on the mistakes he’s made.

Spin nonetheless has a lot of potential. Performed on a spare, video-centric set that suits the production well (it has a television studio feel), Spin is consistently entertaining and amusing. Neil Bartram’s songs occupy a space somewhere between pop music and show tunes, and the songwriter is at his best when he’s making the audience laugh, particularly through the use of a meddling studio chorus that musically projects Evan’s inner thoughts. The earworm number “Baby I Want You, Want You, Want You,” hilariously sung by a mediocre Idol Chatter contestant (Maria Rizzo), perfectly reflects the ridiculousness of over-the-top, melisma-happy stars; similarly satirical is the pulsing “Youth & Fame,” belted out by another competitor. Spin’s songs don’t always leave a lasting impression, but there are exceptions, including the lovely lullaby “Little Frog.”

The show is packed with dynamic performers, many of them fresh off the theater’s run of Steven Sondheim’s Company. Cole’s vocals are jaw-droppingly impressive, and though Gardiner’s singing is a little sloppy on the tricky, jumpy “They Still Want Me,” the mischievous performer works well in a role that can be narcissistic and unsympathetic. Bobby Smith is a scene-stealer as a dandy gossip columnist. He soft-shoes and smiles his way through “Everybody Loves a Scandal.” It’s a great number with sexily choreographed chorus girls and festive tap-dancing, and one of the moments when Spin feels fully realized.

Spin plays through July 27 at Signature Theatre. Running time is about two hours and ten minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($36.30) are available via Signature’s wesbite.