Michael Hollinger and Robert Maggio’s world-premiere musical TouchTones, at the Arden Theatre Company, imagines the wonders of '90s phone sex. To them, it was the good ol' days of anonymous stimulation, before internet filth ruined everything. The show harks back to a stubborn old myth that won’t die: female virginity makes one sacred and pure, while sex before marriage leaves women defiled. Men, of course, escape judgment.
Hollinger, enjoying his 10th Arden premiere, and composer Maggio give us virgins Christine (Alex Keiper) and Justin (Michael Doherty), who pledge abstinence in 1994 (wearing "I *heart* chastity" t-shirts). Five years later, they're engaged and frustrated after "hours of playing and pretending and praying," but still denying their urges. Christine is ready, but Justin balks. "Why should I let my 17-year-old self decide?" she argues.
A momentary switch of big '99 cell phones leads to Christine discovering that Justin has been calling TouchTones, a phone-sex company that promises "fantasies at your fingertips." She confronts him, he denies it, she breaks up with him.
An uncertain quest
Apparently wanting to confront "Mercedes," Justin's favorite temptress, Christine applies for a job with TouchTones. Or maybe it's for revenge on Justin. Perhaps she's sexually curious. Probably throwing a nervous virgin into phone sex just seemed like a cute idea. Anyway, despite her inexperience and discomfort, she's hired by Pearl (Joilet F. Harris). "We provide a public service," Pearl explains. "Love is scary. Sex is scary."
With Emmanuelle Delpech's breezy direction, it’s also often TV-sitcom funny as we watch Christine learn on the job. Many of TouchTones' best moments show Christine, winningly portrayed by Keiper, gaining confidence and independence. The results are typical. Justin is a jealous jerk, played broadly for laughs by Doherty. But the virginity myth insists that sex without marriage is icky and true love, good sex, and respectability belong only to virgins. It's an old and condescending message; Vice President Mike Pence would probably love this musical.
TouchTones gives Teresa (April Ortiz), Gary (Kevin R. Free), and Holly (Jess Conda) tidy backstories, particularly Gary and Kevin's hilarious "bad-date throwdowns." Brad (Darick Pead) helps Christine find her inner sexy character, "Delilah," and momentarily distracts her from her preordained fate. Virginity is gently mocked, but the myth requires that it be rewarded, and so it is.
TouchTones plays mainly in the crowded phone-sex office, with Tim Mackabee's set fitting Justin's description that it’s "about as sexy as the DMV." It actually looks like an Art Deco office-building lobby with furniture added to make it an office, and there's a wall that spins to present Christine's living room. Mike Inwood's lighting completes the office with fluorescent lighting, and Alison Roberts's costumes suggest the period.
Hollinger's clever lyrics and Maggio's compositions sample various musical styles, including a pandering nod to late '90s rap, but few tunes are memorable except when Keiper brings them to life. The show seems to end with a lovely — albeit contrived and inevitable — reconciliation in "See Me," but Hollinger and Maggio cap it with a cheerful full-cast number, "You Gotta Be Who You Want," tacking on a saccharine, overstated message and making TouchTones feel like a middle-school motivational assembly.
To read Alaina Mabaso's review, click here.