“The Evolution of (Henry) Mann” is a decent but flawed musical

Three actors on stage
“The Evolution of (Henry) Mann” by American Theatre Group

There are elements of a fine, deeply funny, and deeply moving show

A man and woman actor on stage
“The Evolution of (Henry) Mann” by American Theatre Group

The American Theatre Group, which dedicates itself to developing new works and rediscovering undeservedly neglected older ones, presents us with its first production of the season, the musical The Evolution of (Henry) Mann.

The premise—a 30-year-old man looking to get married and his adventures in the dating scene. There are several outstanding songs and one gets the idea that after having been presented regionally and off-Broadway since 2013, it should be a more polished show than it appears.

The main character, struggling writer Henry Mann, has been a flop in terms of his love life. Needing to find a date to the wedding of his most recent ex-girlfriend Sheila, Henry sets off on a search—not for a date, but for a wife. Thanks to his best friend Gwen, a lesbian who is living with him because her wife threw her out, Henry meets two women: the assertive, unattainable Tamar and the sweet, available Christine. The question is, does either one of these women meet Henry’s impossibly imaginary standards for a wife?

The three-person cast does their best with the material given to them. Ryan Gregory Thomas as Henry is a sweet self-sabotaging goofball, but he falls just short of creating a character we find ourselves rooting for no matter how much he blunders. Since Henry is onstage for most of the show, sometimes breaking the fourth wall to directly address the audience is a serious problem. Bebe Browning portrays all of Henry’s girlfriends—taunting ex Sheila, neurotic Tamar, and shy Christine—and succeeds in endowing them with individual personalities. Shani Hadjian gives a solid performance as Gwen, whose sardonic humor is tempered by grief over losing her wife and despair of ever getting her back. Ms. Hadjian also has the thankless task of portraying Mrs. Mann, Henry’s typical Jewish mother.

The book by Dan Elish is adapted from his comedic novel Nine Wives. Mr. Elish also provides the lyrics to Douglas J. Cohen’s songs. There are some solid ballads for the women: “It’s Only a First Date” for Christine, a song of disappointment, and “Low Expectations” for Tamar, giving her reasons for avoiding romance. “The Unromantic Things,” a reminiscence was sung by Gwen, explains just what makes a marriage after the vows are spoken, possibly making this the standout song from this show. There’s also a humorous number for Henry and Christine, “What’s the Catch?”, in which each tries to figure out just how a perfectly fine date will be spoiled.

Part of the problem with the performance I saw was the poor quality of the sound. There was a resonance lacking in the wood-paneled theatre space so that the sound was muted compared to the surround sound to which modern audiences are accustomed. This should have been noticed and corrected prior to opening.

Two performers on stage sitting on stools.
“The Evolution of (Henry) Mann” by American Theatre Group

How could this show be made stronger? Split Henry’s women between two actresses—one to play mainly Tamar, the other mainly Christine. As it is, having one actress play all of Henry’s women makes it look like he does not see any woman as a unique individual. Have it made clearer at the start that Henry is not looking for love or romance, just marriage. Also, make it clear, in dialogue or music, that Henry has built walls around himself that prevent him from evolving—a point only dimly seen toward the end of the play as Henry deconstructs parts of the set. Reduce the part of Mrs. Mann to a voice heard only on the phone. Finally, change the opening number, which, while describing the prior year of Henry’s life, doesn’t really set up the show that follows.

There are elements of a fine, deeply funny, and deeply moving show in The Evolution of (Henry) Mann. While not as satisfying as I would have liked, I don’t think the average audience will feel disappointed in spending an intermission-less 90 minutes with Henry, Gwen, Sheila, Tamar, and Christine. For a decent evening’s entertainment, take a look at The Evolution of (Henry) Mann.

The Evolution of (Henry) Mann was presented by the American Theatre Group at the Mitchell and Ann Sieminski Theater in the Fellowship Cultural Arts Center in Basking Ridge through October 24th. For more information or to order tickets, contact fellowshipculturalartscenter.org or call 908-580-3892; tickets for the live stream can be obtained at atg.booktix.com. The Arts Center requires patrons to show proof of vaccination and to wear masks while in the building.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.