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Cathy Ang and Kenny Tran are "helperbots" in the tech-themed musical "Maybe Happy Ending" at the Alliance Theatre. The show won several awards in its native South Korea and is making its U.S. debut in Atlanta. (Photo sby Greg Mooney)

Review: Futuristic, likable “Maybe Happy Ending” needs more time in development

In the 1980s, they were called “meet cutes,” movies in which a couple has a random, unexpected encounter, falls for one another, has some sort of unexpected obstacle, then realizes they were meant to be. The Alliance Theatre’s futuristic musical Maybe Happy Ending (through February 16) might be called something of a “bot cute.” Instead of Meg Ryan and her leading man, its central figures are “helperbots.” Instead of sap and syrup, we get melancholy and the realization of a new technology-rich world.

The musical — a big hit in its native South Korea, where it won six 2016 Korean Musical Awards and the Richard Rodgers Production Award for the English-language version — is making its American debut at the Alliance. It’s imaginative and slickly executed, and full of ideas and themes but a little loosely wired at its center.

We’re in Seoul, in about the year 2050, and helperbots live in a housing complex. Oliver (Kenny Tran) is a Model 3 helperbot, whose owner has gotten rid of him. One afternoon, neighbor and fellow helperbot Claire (Cathy Ang) knocks on his door looking for a charge. They become friends and begin to bond as they talk about their uncertain futures. When they decide to take a road trip together, they have one rule: Never mess matters up by falling in love.

Maybe Happy Ending - Alliance Theatre - Feb 2020
Helperbots Oliver (Kenny Tran) and Claire (Cathy Ang) hit the road in the South Korean-born musical onstage at the Alliance Theatre through February 16.

Maybe Happy Ending is similar to the Alliance’s 2019 Ride the Cyclone in that it’s inventive and goes against musical theater norms, but it works best as a technical achievement. Dane Laffrey’s set is the real star. The show opens with a luminous image of the large complex in which the helperbots live. As the show progresses, the set quickly changes between his living room (full of paintings and possessions) and hers (largely empty except for a pink ottoman-like thing).

When they take to the road, the quicksilver set becomes all sorts of locales —  a jazz bar, a hotel lobby, an island, a home. The show makes hugely effective use of projections (by Sven Ortel) and lighting (by Travis Hagenbuch). It’s all highly theatrical and contemporary, and uses every inch of the Alliance’s mainstage.

MHE - Alliance - FEB 2020
Dez Duron (of the NBC reality show “The Voice”) plays an idol of helperbot Oliver and provides jazz vocals.

The musical (directed by Michael Arden, of Broadway’s latest Once on This Island) examines a tech-obsessed world in which people become more robotic and less able/willing to collaborate. Oliver and Claire have been neighbors for years but have never met. Maybe Happy Ending also deals with the theme of disposability. In the helperbot world, a newer, funkier model is always on the horizon — one that can do things that previous versions cannot. The show also wants to say, optimistically, that love can never be obsolete.

Maybe Happy Ending is a likable work with a terrific visual scheme, but the central story is thin and the musical score even thinner. Will Aronson (music) and Hue Park (lyrics) cowrote the book. Their helperbots never become fully realized characters, and while it would be challenging to make helperbots three-dimensional, Claire and Oliver lack depth and have scant, confusing backstories. Even at a relatively short 100 minutes (without intermission), the production feels padded.

Tran (Aurora Theatre’s Men With Money) and Ang are talented and do what they can to bring life to the musical, but their characters need fine-tuning. Both certainly know their way around a tune, but the score doesn’t give them much room to shine. Many songs sound the same, save for some jazz sequences by Dez Duron (of the NBC reality show The Voice) as one of Oliver’s idols. The most satisfying non-jazz number might be “My Favorite Love Story,” in which Oliver and Claire create the details of how they met in case anyone asks.

The Alliance and the show deserve props for showcasing a company that’s largely Asian American and for presenting an intriguing, futuristic new world. But if the project is indeed earmarked for Broadway, it’s going to need a more advanced model.