About five minutes after "A Change in the Heir" began, the night I saw it, a strange wailing filled the theater. Enough time had already elapsed that it might have been the sound of anguished patrons contemplating two more hours of dreariness.
It was instead a fire alarm set to go off in tandem with one somewhere in the adjoining Edison Hotel. There was, of course, no fire, and, after the actors valiantly tried to make themselves heard above the din, the show stopped. After a brief intermission, alas, it resumed.
Midway through the second act, the audience was distracted by the sound of ventilators rustling above us. I thought this whirring might result in some special effect on stage, but I was wrong.
These were the two most interesting things that happened during the evening. They are instances, of course, of the joys of "live theater," the sort of frissons you cannot expect eight times a week.
If you were to make the mistake of seeing "A Change in the Heir" such delights would not occur and all you could expect to see was "A Change in the Heir," an indescribably bland musical that I'm afraid I can no longer postpone describing.
The story is set in a fairy-tale kingdom where there is no clear heir to the throne. A wicked regent who wants to rule forever issues an edict that the two infants who might succeed to the throne must reach the age of 20 with spotless reputations. The parents of a boy infant decide it will be easier to achieve this if they declare their boy a girl; the parents of a girl, of course, do the opposite.
We are then expected to believe that the two youths reach the age of 20 without discovering their proper sex. Even in a fairy tale this is not easy. The result is a show that might have been produced by the fraternities at Podunk U. for parents' weekend. Where else would you hear an exchange like "I had mono that semester." "I had her too."
The music is mostly wan but occasionally grows ambitious, yielding a sort of Ding Dong School version of Sondheim's "Into the Woods."
The production is full of the kind of talent that used to be standard in musicals that you seldom see nowadays. Brooks Almy has a wonderful harridan's voice and manner, Judy Blazer has a splendid ingenue quality in look and voice and Jeffrey Herbst certainly looks and sounds like both Prince and, in this plot, Princess Charming.
But the show is too stupid to make proper use of their talents. It's no wonder the British now dominate Broadway. Their stupid musicals at least capture the public's imagination. "A Change in the Heir" is incapable even of attaining the inanity to which it so earnestly aspires.
Never trust a musical that starts "Once Upon a Time" unless it's Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Into the Woods." The new musical at the Edison Theater - only recently released from the fleshly delights of "Oh Calcutta!" for the carnal pleasure of voyeuristic Japanese businessmen - is not, by any means, "Into the Woods."
In fact, this fairy-tale musical with music by Dan Sticco, lyrics by George H. Gorham and book by both of the above, never actually gets out of the woods.
It's probably aimed at the cute whimsicality of Mary Rodger's 1959 Broadway musical for Carol Burnett, "Once Upon a Mattress," but it didn't even hit the bedpost.
"A Change in the Heir" seems a lost cause - ironically not made any the more winning by its winning, but quite charmingly helpless cast. Unfortunately they can't write the musical - only perform it.
The book starts ridiculous and gets sillier. Some fairytale kingdom is searching for an heir to the throne; two royal babies are born, and for reasons made apparent but never clear, the two sets of parents independently decide that their offsprings' chances of inheriting the kingdom (they have still to be pure by the time they reach maturity) would be variously enhanced if the girl baby was brought up as a boy and the boy baby brought up as a girl.
And that's just the premise! And the premises - a toy-town castle devised in white by designer Michael Anania to display brightly colored toy-town costumes by David Murin - are hardly better.
The score is not very noticeable. Indeed, at first the orchestra and orchestration seem so thin that the overture has been on a full two minutes before you realize it has started and it is not just the conductor clearing his throat and various nasal passages.
There are the occasional tunes, but I would never call them tuneful. The tone set by the music is something of a monotonously sprightly dirge.
The book and lyrics make sporadic attempts at being witty - a few puns here (one about a train is not too bad in the circumstances) and a few insults there are about the sum of it. Everything is extremely effortful - there's no ease or grace. The show - if such it need be called - has been directed and choreographed by David H. Bell, whose principal function seems to be traffic-copping the various chases that are presumably intended to add the illusion of activity to the otherwise moribund (the story, such as it is, is over by the intermission) action.
Among the performers I felt particularly sorry for were Brooks Almy as a wicked aunt, a Disneyesque villainess with aspirations to caustic humor, Jeffrey Herbst as the boy-princess, and most of all to the still dauntlessly enchanting Judy Blazer as the girl-prince.
In Chicago, from whence they come, it seems that Messrs. Gorham and Sticco run a workshop intended to teach other people how to write musicals.
I also understand from the Playbill that they also have day jobs - Gorham breeding and training bull terriers, while Sticco is "a gourmet cook and is active in the environmental movement." If I were them I would start to concentrate a bit more on breeding, cooking and the environment, and leave the teaching of musicals to people a little less busy.
''Do you read Middle Goth?'' one minor character asks of another in the new musical farce ''A Change in the Heir.''
''I should, but I had mono that semester,'' comes the reply. ''I had her too,'' snaps the inquirer. Such jokes, at once wan and tasteless, exemplify the sad level of wit in the musical fairy tale that limped into the Edison Theater last night, after having been developed at the New Tuners Theater in Chicago, where it was first presented two years ago.
With lyrics by George H. Gorham, music by Dan Sticco and a book by both, ''A Change in the Heir'' looks and sounds like a campy, nickel-and-dime burlesque of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine show ''Into the Woods.'' Whole swatches of its score imitate Mr. Sondheim's musical style with a fidelity that borders on appropriation. The melody of ''By Myself,'' a song in Act II, repeats almost note for note one of the themes in the title song of ''Merrily We Roll Along.''
Set in a low-rent district of fairyland where the royal garb resembles patterned bed sheets, ''A Change in the Heir'' tells the story of how two competing branches of the same family, each hoping to inherit the crown, bring a son and a daughter up as the opposite sex. Don't ask why. The conditions by which one or the other might become the monarch are as confusing as they are arbitrary.
The show's one genuine laugh comes early in Act I when Prince Conrad (Judy Blazer) and Princess Agnes (Jeffrey Herbst), the two young rivals, appear at the castle of the kingdom's despotic regent, Aunt Julia (Brooks Almy). Making her entrance, Princess Agnes is quite a sight as she towers incongruously over the rest of the cast. ''I'm just not the kind of girl boys chase after,'' she reflects stoically while twiddling with an itchy chest hair. Agnes, however, soon discovers her true sex after being shown a book of pornographic pictures. Inevitably, the lanky princess and the diminutive prince strike up a romance.
In the show's second act the plot, involving a stolen diary, a forged birth certificate and a bogus marriage contract, becomes so convoluted that it's impossible to figure out what's going on. In the director David H. Bell's slapdash musical staging, the actors tear about the stage in a pointless frenzy of hysterical acrobatics. When they slow down long enough to talk, the tone of their dialogue seldom sinks below a shout.
Among the performers one feels the sorriest for is Miss Almy, who, in the role of the wicked Aunt Julia, is required to grimace and spit fire like a stereotypical camp gorgon. As the royal heirs, Miss Blazer and Mr. Herbst are hopelessly bland, both in and out of drag. It is left to Mr. Herbst to deliver the show's clunkiest line. Fed up with all shenanigans, he huffs, ''No more princess nice guy!''
''A Change in the Heir'' is the kind of show that, were it cut by half and staged in a cabaret, might provide an hour's trashy diversion. Heaven knows what it's doing on Broadway.