The San Diego Repertory Theatre's The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea features a love interest whose name suits him about as well as those Isotoners fit over O.J.'s hands a few years back. Prince Gallant's gallantry begins and ends with his naïveté about women; if he's ever been to first base, it's because he was issued a walk in an actual ballgame. “All I want to do,” he declares, “is find out what's causing that strange blue light in the sky.”
The bigger picture involves two neighboring African kingdoms, a tyrannical queen-mother, a baffled king, a fearsome warrior and a stay-at-home princess who's about to get some schooling in real life. Add Gallant's funny glow up there, and the story starts to sound like something. The rhythm 'n' blues treatments take things a step further; for a while, we've got a sophisticated modern twist on Hans Christian Andersen's The Princess and the Pea. But words matter, and these words (as in Gallant's line above) neither elevate the tunes nor help create characters to sing them. The concepts give the cast plenty to work from, but the dialogue gives them next to nothing to work with.
Taking a cue from Andersen's 19th-century classic, Princess Quelie (American Idol finalist Sabrina Sloan) has had it up to her ass with nosy King Nat (P.L. Brown), and never mind he's her dad. The last straw came with Nat's decree on whom Quelie will marry; she'd as soon brave a fierce storm in an attempt to escape her fate. Her travels make short work of her until Gallant (Josh Tower) happens upon her on the grounds of his kingdom—they fall in love, but they can't do anything about it until Quelie passes a royal test to determine whether she's the “bluest of blue, blue blood.”
As conceived by Karole Foreman, the story hits on the right ideas. Playwright Kirsten Childs has built a good secondary character to spearhead a rivalry for the prince. Quelie's adoptive sister (Jennifer Leigh Warren) is also a fair-weather friend, dissing Quelie in an attempt to turn Gallant's head her way. Warren's work is great amid the prickly demeanor her character turns on and off on a dime, and director Stafford Arima exploits it with his judicious use of the stage.
But Childs can't write her concepts into existence. “She was dropped on her head as a baby”; “I should be the one to decide who I'll marry”; “It's not easy to turn your back on thousands of years' tradition”; “You won, so congratulations”; “Come out, come out, wherever you are”; “Girl! You almost died!” and a jillion more: Listen to Childs clutch at straws amid such generic, lackluster speeches. The renowned Lillias White is potentially superb as Queen Zauba, and Tonex's singing voice knocked me on my hindquarters in his portrayal of ladies' man Rolin—but their dialogue falls far short of complementing Andrew Chuckerman's inspired score.
The true test of a musical lies in the absence of the music—the script has to stand as its own story and serve as more than a bridge to the tunes. Modern Broadway entries from My Fair Lady to Hairspray have passed muster without breaking a sweat. The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea, about which there's been some talk of export to Broadway, may have as much to offer as the other two—now, we need some speeches to show as much.
This review is based on the performance of Dec. 3. The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea runs through Dec. 21 at The Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $39-$44. 619-544-1000, www.sdrep.com.