If you’re in your 50s (I am), and American (I am), you probably read Love Story (I did), even if you won’t admit it. “What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?” begins Erich Segal’s novel, in what must be the granddaddy of all spoiler alerts. Segal then spends 224 pages answering his own question — but I’ll bet you can guess.
Jenny Cavilleri was talented, brainy and beautiful. She made everyone who knew her better, especially Oliver Barrett IV, the jock law student who romanced and married her despite his rich parents’ tight-lipped, WASP-y disapproval.
Love Story wasn’t art — it was a formulaic, efficient tearjerker, brimming with clichés and stereotypes. But somehow, when the book came out in 1970, it took the country by storm. Shortly after, Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal were an improbably gorgeous Jenny and Oliver in a movie that was, if anything, an even bigger hit than the book.
Now, Love Story unapologetically re-emerges as a musical, imported from England’s prestigious Chichester Festival Theatre and receiving its American premiere at the Walnut. Clearly, this will make many people of a certain generation very, very happy. The Walnut’s opening-night audience laughed, cried and cheered. (Literally, all three. Sometimes simultaneously.)
Indeed, there are many things to admire in the Walnut’s Love Story, among them the elegant direction (by Annabel Bolton) and the design, which is based on the Chichester production. An off-white unit set — a large hall with classical columns — seamlessly suggests the novel’s many locations (Harvard, Jenny’s Rhode Island home, two Manhattan apartments) and propels the complicated storytelling in a way that is both picturesque and energetic. The chamber orchestra is seated among the columns, a sophisticated touch that adds to the charm of the piece.
Stephen Clark’s adaptation of the book captures Segal’s world faithfully, and, more impressively, theatricalizes it with brio. The best moments in Love Story (and some of them are terrific) are the playful sparring scenes between the two lead lovers, which, if not quite at His Girl Friday level, are nevertheless delightful and do the one thing absolutely necessary for the show to click: They make us fall in love with Jenny.
This is immeasurably easier because Alexandra Silber is excellent as Jenny. If you know the character only through MacGraw’s elfin, acting-free performance in the movie, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. This Jenny is feisty, funny, unsentimental and utterly winning. Will Reynolds isn’t quite so accomplished as Oliver, a less interesting role, but he’s lanky and likeable, and well-paired with Silber in terms of comic interplay.
If only it were all this good. But as I said, this is Love Story the musical — and sure enough, the songs are meant to do much of the heavy lifting in terms of providing background info, moving us through time (from ’63 to ’67) and supplying emotional weight.
But Howard Goodall’s music is a swamp of generic pop melodies, repeated frequently yet completely unmemorable. The lyrics are equally colorless. At no point does the score tap the vast well of the music of the era in which it's set. And though both Silber and Reynolds have singing chops, the score seems awkwardly written for them — too high for him; across the break for her.
Can a musical be recommended in spite of the music? Fans of Segal’s book may find a lot to like in the Walnut’s snazzy production. But you probably won’t leave humming the tunes. And if you do, you’ll wish you weren’t.
Through Oct. 21, $10-$85, Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., 215-574-3550, walnutstreettheatre.org.