Theatre Review: ‘Maybe Happy Ending’ at Alliance Theatre

Photos by Greg Mooney

Alliance Theatre, with that enticing Tony Award greeting you as you enter the theatre, calls itself “Atlanta’s national theatre with a local address.”

This time they have lived up to their sobriquet and are presenting a show that no other theatre in town could have done. It runs through Feb. 16.

“Maybe Happy Ending,” a musical by Will Aronson (book, music, orchestration) and his writing partner Hue Park (book and lyrics), directed by Broadway’s Michael Arden (“Once on This Island”), is making its English language debut. The show began in Korea in 2016, where it won six major awards and also the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ 2017 Richard Rodgers Award.

Oliver (Kenny Tran) is just about the most delightful Helperbot 3 that you’d ever want to meet. He lives alone (if you don’t count HwaBoon, his plant roommate) in his small Seoul apartment in about 2050. Next door is Claire (Cathy Ang), an equal winsome Helperbot (although she’s a “5,” newer model, you see). The two have never really met; they soon do.

Now before you turn off and say you don’t want to see a play about robots; or you think it’s ridiculous to compare humans with robots—all you have to do is go to a restaurant or coffeehouse and observe couples sitting across from each other, totally engrossed in their iphones; not even glancing at the humanoid they’re sharing a table with.

You soon realize that Oliver and Claire are moving toward authentic humanity, while we humans are not so subtly abandoning it.

They are precious fireflies (a recurring metaphor here) with a brief shelf life. Guess what: We all have brief shelf lives; but the Helperbots are learning how to make the most of the time they’ve got. Are we?

By the way, Oliver loves jazz, and occasionally Gil Brentley (Dez Duron, of TV’s “The Voice”) will appear to serenade us with classic smoothies of the 1940’s and 50’s. Where did Oliver get his love for jazz? From his former owner? Maybe, but Oliver has now incorporated his musical passion into his personality. Bots are not supposed to be able to do this.

And bots are not supposed to be able to fall in love, but Claire and Oliver do—in their own special way. They are stepping out of the box, and the show becomes very moving—especially when both discuss the brevity of their existence.

I haven’t mentioned that “Maybe Happy Ending” is breathtakingly beautiful to watch. You will see stage magic that you’ve never experienced in person in the live theatre. For this we must thank Dane Laffrey’s set, Sven Ortel’s projections, and Travis Hagenbuch’s lighting. The show is about 95 minutes long with no intermission; look for the scene when fireflies meet the orchestra in the sky. That’s all I shall say—except it’s unforgettable.

You will fall in love with both Ms. Ang and Mr. Tran—unless you’re not human—wait, maybe that’s a good thing. I feel like I’m in Oz: Unusual things happen here. I’ve also not mentioned how well they sing—or the heavenly orchestra that comes out of nowhere.

Despite all the beauty and inventiveness, one could say that the piece is not quite as dramatically compelling as it could be. It’s hard to say why, since the show is quite ineffable (from whence comes its charm).

I will say that this musical play is a totally unique piece of theatre art; if you miss it (it’s hopefully bound for Broadway), you’ll probably regret it. Life is short, live and love while you may—that’s a lovely, timely message.

For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.

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