“Midnight at The Never Get” is a tale about resilience, both onstage and off. The plucky musical, about a forbidden romance between two male musicians on the cusp of the Stonewall uprising, was born at Don’t Tell Mama, then reshaped for a sold-out run at the 2016 New York Musical Festival, and the following year caused a sensation during its six-week run in Provincetown.
And now, it’s found a home Off-Broadway at the York Theatre Company, New York’s premier incubator of musicals. Although this engaging, historically minded piece has come a long way, it’s still not quite there yet.
It’s no surprise this tuner was born in a piano bar. Featuring 13 original songs by the gifted Mark Sonnenblick (he also wrote the book), it feels like a cabaret show with a narrative woven in between musical numbers. The piece mainly takes place in a Greenwich Village nightclub circa 1968. The minimal set is little more than a grand piano, a five-piece band, and a large sign announcing the joint’s name, “The Never Get,” in red light bulbs.
We witness Trevor Copeland, a spritely singer, flirting with pianist/ songwriter Arthur Brightman at the Checkerboard (the script is peppered with references to real downtown haunts like Bon Soir, Julius’, the Blue Angel, the Village Vanguard, and of course, Stonewall). Before long the boys, in their mid-20s, become partners in love and in business, with Trevor crooning the ditties that Arthur writes.
Sure it was the turbulent 1960s, but Trevor and Arthur were lost in time. Instead of rock and roll, folk, or protest anthems, they preferred music from a romantic era a couple of decades back, and the numbers are impressive clones of classics by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin. The pair prefer jackets and ties to fringed vests and love beads.
Not that they don’t have a gimmick. Arthur writes tender ballads with his lover in mind, and Trevor sings them with masculine pronouns intact. Despite detractors who can’t stand the idea of a man professing devotion to another man, their show, at The Never Get, naturally, garners quite a following.
Trevor describes their act as “Songs, jokes, elegance — Judy at Carnegie! But gay. Well, more gay.”
The threat of arrest or worse is real, but the duo is willing to risk it all. But how long can they continue to make beautiful music together before something gives?
Sam Bolen, who’s been with the show from the start (in fact, he came up with the premise), lends a boundless energy to Trevor, delivering dance moves and “torchy little numbers” with panache. Despite being saddled behind the piano for much of the proceedings, Jeremy Cohen is superb as the temperamental Arthur. His voice is actually stronger than Bolen’s — a disconnect, since Arthur is the songwriter and Trevor is supposed to be the shining star.
Under the direction of Max Friedman, “Midnight at The Never Get” achieves some deeply affecting moments, like when Arthur, out of personal conviction, refuses to change the pronouns and loses a record deal with Columbia. But toward the end, the show, stuffed with too many muddled ideas, comes apart at the seams. The structure, whereby the story is mostly told in flashback, as Trevor yearns to be reunited with his long lost lover in the hereafter, proves too flimsy. The climax is unsatisfying.
Despite the glitches, what comes through loud and clear is the magical — albeit doomed — love affair between two queer pioneers, unafraid to make a tuneful bid for gay rights every bit as potent as a protest march down Christopher Street.
MIDNIGHT AT THE NEVER GET | The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s | 619 Lexington Ave., enter on E. 54th St. | Through Nov. 4: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Thu., Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m. | $67.50-$72.50 at YorkTheatre.org | Ninety mins., no intermission