Alan Thicke, playing the real-life great-granddaddy of reality-TV hosts such as Ryan Seacrest and Ben Mulroney, is the best thing about the new musical Queen for a Day.
In the former Growing Pains star's sly performance, he embodies the links between great American entertainment forms past and present and future – the evolution from vaudeville to sitcoms, from carnivals to game shows.
Alas, at the moment, Thicke is the only really good thing about Queen for a Day. It needs some serious rethinking if it's to have a life outside Richmond Hill, Ont., though the potential is clear.
Indeed, despite its desperately uneven tone crafted by committee and a few bite-your-fist-hard-so-you-don't-guffaw-inappropriately moments, it kept my attention through Thicke and thin. Ba-dum, hi-hat cymbal sound! Queen for a Day, created by an untweetably long list of writers and "conceivers," takes its name and inspiration from an American radio and TV game show that ran from 1945 to 1964 and is considered by some to be the first "reality" show.
Host Jack Bailey – Thicke, laying it on like a man with his last name should – would interview a succession of housewives seeking to be "queen for a day." The ladies would compete with sob stories about why they needed a truck or a vacation, and the winner would be determined by the applause of a studio audience – rather than today's texts and tweets from the viewers at home.
Instead of exploring the awful and amusing aspects of what was essentially an American tragedy competition, Queen for a Day plays it mostly straight.
Claribel Anderson (Blythe Wilson, giving a performance so vacant it's like Stepford wife on valium) is the show's bland, goodie-two-shoes protagonist, a kind of anti-Richard Hatch. It's 1953, she works in a greasy spoon straight out of Grease, is married to her high-school sweetheart and dreams of a house with a white-picket fence.
After semi-accidentally ending up on Queen for a Day alongside her actress-waitress friend Lana (an adorable Marisa McIntyre), she wishes for a truck for her out-of-work husband, until she hears the sob story of black co-contestant Esther (Angela Teek), who is looking for a leg brace for her polio-stricken son.
This dilemma leads to the Act I finale, an overwrought attempt at a cliff-hanger sung by Claribel called A Woman Has a Right to Change Her Mind. (Spoiler alert: No one expresses the slightest disagreement with that.)
Other ancillary characters are more fun and channel the true, twisted spirit of reality-TV contestants. Birdie, a schemer from Claribel's diner, is played with old-fashioned gusto by Lisa Horner. Ned, Claribel's ne'er-do-well husband, has a certain sad-eyed Ryan Gosling appeal in Jay Davis's performance.
Choreographer Mike Jackson, meanwhile, has put together a ridiculous number called The Ukulele Samba that takes Queen for a Day to the comfortable self-satirizing level that Thicke established earlier.
Less successful elements are an abortive romance (miscarried, really) and a cringeworthy framing device that involves Old Claribel Anderson (a spunky Denise Fergusson, neatly navigating lines that sound like Betty White rejects) making friends with a young black woman named Felicia (Camille Eanga-Selenge) who, dear God, raps her first song.
Even more racially naive, however, is Esther's solo Sea of White, in which she delivers what is clearly supposed to be one of those sing-your-pain-black-lady numbers about sitting down to lunch with two white women, Claribel and Lana. "Are we walking across some racial, segregational divide?" she asks. (This is where I got the bite marks on my knuckles.)
If I can let out my inner game-show host here: Linda Barnett, composer and lyricist, you are the weakest link.
Barnett, also one of the show's producers, has composed music that's pleasing enough – though the repeated song One Wonderful Day is dangerously close to It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Her lyrics, however, are often appalling.
When they're satirical, as they are in not one, but two songs about how men rule the roost in 1953, they're as subtle as a sledgehammer.
And when they're sentimental, they run the gamut from gloopy to gobbledygook: "Let the clock strike midnight; let's give its hands wings to fly." If Queen for a Day is to spread its hand-wings and soar, perhaps it needs to trade a couple of its four dialogue writers for a lyricist and a black person.
Queen for a Day runs until Oct. 7.