March 28 2012 12:00 AM

Take two hard-luck cases, add one wise bartender, throw in songs and shake it up: That's 'The Usual'


The guy taking his seat at last Thursday’s preview performance of Williamston Theatre’s “The Usual: A Musical Love Story” was mystified by the pre-show music, a peppy melody on synthesized steel drums.

“That sounds like Mario Brothers music,” he told his date. “Jump over the turtles!”

He kept listening. He nodded his head. “Yeah, definitely Mario Brothers.”

The funny thing is, he was right.

Thank you, director Tony Caselli.

“I think Tony put that in there,” said Alan Gordon, who wrote the book and lyrics for “The Usual.” “I think he also put ‘Legend of Zelda’ in there and the ‘Doctor Who’ theme.”

References to old-school pop culture run through “The Usual.” Jovial “king of the geeks” Kip (Joseph Zettelmaier) wears a vintage Atari T-shirt, while the slightly high-strung Valerie (Emily Sutton-Smith) finds comfort with her ancient, antiquated computer with its game programs on floppy disks.

Gordon, a longtime fan of video and computer games, said Caselli has been a perfect match for this piece. “I think I hit Tony right in the middle of his inner geek, He claimed he was doing research, but I think he was off playing video games instead.”

This is also the rare musical that includes shout-outs to spam messages from alleged Canadian pharmacies and interactive dating sites.

“The show came out of my general fascination with how technology changes our behavior and how much of our life has been altered by cell phones and the Internet,” Gordon said. “We’re different socially than we were 10 years ago. You can communicate with more people and get access to so much more information, yet it’s become harder for people to deal with the face-to-face stuff.”

In “The Usual,” recently divorced Kip meets unlucky-in-love Valerie at a neighborhood tavern where worldly wise bartender Sam (Leslie Hull) takes turns as a counselor, a cheerleader and a Greek chorus. Although Kip and Valerie quickly build a rapport, they’re wary of moving outside the “just friends” zone.

“I’ll make a pact I won’t react/No matter how much you attract,” Kip sings. Valerie agrees.

What’s unusual about “The Usual” is that Kip and Valerie do not rush to the bedroom, a la “Friends With Benefits” or “No Strings Attached.” Even though sharp-eyed Sam senses they’d be perfect for one another, Kip and Valerie spend most of their time talking about other people, sharing accounts of dates gone wrong.

“I liked that sort of game in the relationship,” Gordon said. “The bar is neutral territory, and they come in to report to each other.”

When he was working on “The Usual” with Mark Sutton-Smith (Emily’s brother and the composer of the show’s melodies), Gordon said the songs always grew out of the scenario — and speaking of the story, what’s it like to have award-winning playwright Zettelmaier (“Dead Man´s Shoes,” “And the Creek Don´t Rise”) as the male lead in your show?

“This is my first show to get a full production, so everything’s new to me,” Gordon said. “So I was a little intimidated: ‘Oh, great, an acclaimed playwright!’ But he’s been coming at it strictly from an actor’s standpoint. He’s a marvelous performer and I think the fact that he’s playwright as well allows him to find different approaches to play a scene.”

While the model of Valerie’s cherished 1980s computer is fictitious, the cocktails Sam concocts are not — even the Corpse Reviver, which Gordon said he and the cast tried after the show one night.

“All the drinks are real,” Gordon said. “It turns out you don’t have to look too far to find bizarre-sounding names for cocktails.”

‘The Usual: A Musical Love Story’

Now through April 22

Williamston Theatre

122 S. Putnam St., Williamston

Preview 8 p.m. Thursday, March 29; all seats $15

Friday, March 30 through April 22: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; 3 p.m. April 7, 14 and 21

$20 Thursdays; $25 Fridays and Saturday evenings; $22 Saturday matinees and Sundays; $10 students with ID; $2 off any show for seniors 65 and over

(517) 655-7469