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‘A Sign of the Times’ Review: A Confused 1960s New York

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For a jukebox musical set in 1965 New York City — that tackles feminism, civil rights activism and the Vietnam War — “A Sign of the Times” sure includes a lot of songs by the British singer Petula Clark. When the lead characters turn up at a party hosted by Randy Forthwall, an artsy type in a silver-white fright wig (would Andy Schmarhol have been too on the nose?), he even complains that Clark is a no-show.

She may not have made it to Randy’s shindig, but her hits are all over this show, including “Downtown,” “Color My World,” “I Know a Place,” “Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” “Round Every Corner” and the title track.

This is a head-scratching choice because the story — which revolves around a nice Midwesterner, Cindy (Chilina Kennedy), who dreams of being a photographer in the big city — is physically, tonally and culturally remote from Clark’s light-pop universe.

It all starts making sense as you realize that when “A Sign of the Times” premiered at Goodspeed Opera House in 2016, with a book by Bruce Vilanch, Clark’s name was put forward in all the descriptions. The current iteration, which is at New World Stages with a book credited to Lindsey Hope Pearlman, wisely realized a Petula Clark show might not draw huge crowds. It advertises itself more generically, and there are plenty of non-Clark songs, mostly of the very, very familiar kind: “Rescue Me,” “Gimme Some Lovin’,” “Last Train to Clarksville” and so on. (The show is based on an idea by Richard J. Robin, who is also presenting this production in partnership with the York Theater Company.)

Sadly, the graft did not take. “A Sign of the Times” pulls every which way, clumsily trumpeting inclusivity and empowerment while shoehorning in hits that can feel chosen randomly, and with little regard for the action’s date stamp since several songs came out after 1965. Keeping us awake are some comically distracting details — by all means, look up what a yellow bandanna in the right back pocket of a man’s jeans meant in gay cruising circles — and choreography, by JoAnn M. Hunter, that essentially recycles a handful of the most basic moves from the “Hullabaloo” variety show.

But back to our Ohio bumpkin. After dumping her casually sexist boyfriend, Matt (Justin Matthew Sargent), Cindy takes off for New York. Luckily for audience members, her new roommate, the aspiring singer Tanya, is played by the excellent Crystal Lucas-Perry, a 2023 Tony nominee for “Ain’t No Mo’.” Lucas-Perry and Akron Lanier Watson, as Tanya’s activist boyfriend, keep the show cooking. They even manage to overcome the band’s slack backbeat, which undermines any attempt at zip or punch. (The music supervisor Joseph Church did the arrangements and orchestrations; Britt Bonney is the music director.)

Less lucky in love than Tanya, Cindy falls for Brian (Ryan Silverman), a slick ad man. After her friend warns her about the Madison Avenue kind, Cindy replies, “But he is exactly what I imagined a guy from New York would be,” then launches into “Boy From New York City” — because there is no better transition into a song than an obvious one.

Gabriel Barre’s production is fairly luxurious for an Off Broadway musical: Five leads and a 10-member ensemble is nothing to sniff at nowadays. But filling a stage does not automatically translate to filling a space. Even Petula Clark did not have a song about that conundrum.

A Sign of the Times
At New World Stages, Manhattan; asignofthetimes.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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