Whenever the Broadway musical slumps — which is often — the cry goes up, “Where are the new, young composers and lyricists?”
In fact, they are plentiful and can be found toiling in the nation’s many developmental musical workshops or being produced in regional theaters like Delray Beach’s Arts Garage, in those all-too-rare companies with a commitment to nurturing such promising talent as Daniel Mate.
The Theater at Arts Garage launches its third season with Mate’s “The Longing and the Short of It,” a smart and smart-mouthed song cycle of 23 eclectic musical numbers, many with a jazzy sound and most with brash, conversational lyrics studded with wordplay, pop culture references and unexpected rhymes.
It is a good thing that Mate’s wit is so much in evidence because the characters he creates are largely melancholy loners, yearning for human connection but oozing pain through every pore. You might think they are not people you would like to spend an evening with, until you find yourself identifying with them and their emotional wounds.
Most of these unconventionally structured songs truly seem like miniature playlets. There’s the acquisitive guy who rattles off his increasingly difficult demands (“All I Want”), the morose woman who needs to share her woes (“Misery Loves My Company”), a man intent on clearing the air before he breaks up with a lover (“Before I Go”), a woman seeking spiritual fulfillment (“When I Get Enlightened”), a man negotiating the beginnings of a relationship (“We Don’t Have to Date”) and many more.
Individually, these songs are engrossing, both in form and content. But after a while, you will probably develop a longing of your own, hoping that these musical numbers could cohere into a satisfying whole, have some unifying synergy to increase their impact beyond a series of characters and moods.
In fact, in an earlier version of the song cycle Mate did try to write a script that connects these songs, but he ultimately jettisoned that effort. Finding a linking narrative is undoubtedly difficult, but that is what the show seems to need. Without it, the evening feels like a portfolio of musical snapshots, albeit written by a very promising writer.
Director Max Friedman has gathered an appealing six-member cast that delivers the material with vocal power and actorly precision. Initially introduced as couples of different ages — the 20s (Alix Paige, Noah Zachary), the 30s (Liz Lark Brown, Henry Gainza) and the 50s (Elizabeth Dimon, John Herrera) — but little is then made of their ages and even less of the twosomes.
Dimon is a standout, in part because of the songs she has been dealt, including a sly number with an unprintable title about playing with her partner’s mind. Gainza shows off a finely honed comic sensibility on “We Don’t Have to Date” and Paige (seen this summer in Dramaworks’ concert of “Man of La Mancha”) nicely leads the cast in a slightly off-topic song about Facebook.
The performers are fine, but the star of “The Longing … ” is composer-lyricist Mate. He may not be upbeat about contemporary relationships, but he represents a reason to be optimistic about the future of the musical theater.
THE LONGING AND THE SHORT OF IT
Where: The Theatre at Arts Garage, 180 N.E. First St., Delray Beach.
When: Through Nov. 24.
Tickets: $30-$45. Call: 561-450-6357.
The verdict: A smart, smart-mouthed revue of songs by newcomer Daniel Mate in search of a connecting structure.