at Cafe Voltaire

At a piano bar more often than not the bar is a bigger attraction than the piano. And where booze won’t work, music leavens the miseries and speeds the courtships–as it does in Piano Bar, a 90-minute musical collage performed by happy-hour patrons at Sweet Sue’s, a New York City watering hole. Presiding over their attitude adjustment is Johnny Prince (Philip Seward), an adept lounge entertainer whose job is to keep the drinkers happy.

The story is the songs themselves. Mellow, tart, and supple numbers by composer Rob Fremont and lyricist Doris Willens help to connect the couples, sometimes mechanically, often seemingly inevitably. The other denizens of Sweet Sue’s are Joe the bartender (Tom Colby); Julie (Lucinda Johnston), a lady with man trouble; Walt (Michael Maraz), a commodities trader down on funds and separated from his wife; Debbie (Kristin Finger), a greeting-card writer who’s sick of sentiment; and Ned (David G. Peryam), who specializes in restaurant supplies and urban alienation.

The 19 songs chart their crises. Ned complains of people who pigeonhole others and of phony acquaintances he has to suck up to. Debbie laments how the New York fantasy doesn’t fit her life-style. In “Alas, Alack” Walt inventories his urban disillusionments. Julie complains about the lies men feed her.

The all-knowing Prince watches as Julie and Walt come together–rather improbably, considering how in “Believe Me” Julie just warned Debbie against being taken in by horny strangers. (Julie’s turnabout occurs the instant she learns Walt is almost divorced.) Tentatively, even clumsily, Debbie and Ned begin to bond too, though what brings them together is more a set of common grievances than any affinity.

To their credit the songs don’t minimize the hurdles love leaps or the resistance people put up to their own happiness. With its pungent and detailed lyrics, “Scenes From Some Marriages” shrewdly diagnoses several malfunctioning liaisons (invoking a few thinly disguised stereotypes), while on the therapeutic side Julie and Walt’s hopeful ballads, “It’s Coming Back to Me” and “Tango,” spell out a cure.

This local premiere by Milestone Productions is a limited-engagement benefit for Season of Concern, the Chicago theater community’s continuing fund-raising effort in the fight against AIDS, which will receive 80 percent of the proceeds. Apart from helping a good cause Amy Malone’s staging smoothly strings the songs together, combating the play’s penchant for jerking its characters from song to song.

The uniformly excellent cast bring strong voices and a firm grasp to Fremont’s easy-listening score; however silly or cute the situations, these actors take them seriously enough to justify each song. This is particularly true of Johnston: though she’s lumbered with Julie’s blatant mood swings she makes us sense, in “Meanwhile Back in Yonkers,” that a lifetime of bad breaks fuels Julie’s doubt. Peryam’s hard-driving Ned, Finger’s trusting, melancholy Debbie, and Maraz’s slickly confident Walt are well defined and well contrasted.

Last and best, musical director Seward gives his lounge star Johnny Prince a refreshingly unsmarmy conviviality. And Seward’s piano supports the singers as sympathetically as his character serves these love hunters.