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‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’ Review: Four on a Mattress, With Songs

The sirens of sexual revolution sing with surprising gentleness in “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” the New Group’s musical adaptation of Paul Mazursky’s 1969 movie. The prime asset of this friendly but toothless show, which opened on Tuesday night at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is Duncan Sheik’s pastel score, a hazy evocation of roads not taken by two square, 30-something couples floundering through a bewildering new world of erotic freedom.

As our show’s title characters strip down at a consciousness-raising institute in Big Sur, boogie in a nightclub where they’re the oldest people in the room and ponder the temptations of spouse swapping, you’ll hear none of the swirling orgasmic chords and pumping rhythms that regularly churned the airwaves of the late 1960s. There’s no equivalent here to “Come on baby, light my fire.”

Sheik, who trafficked in a more defiant sensuality in his Tony-winning score for “Spring Awakening,” takes a slyer, quieter approach here. The first number heard — which is described by a radio disc jockey as “the latest tune that all the hip youngsters are grooving to” — is called “The Wind in Your Hair,” and it’s a polyphonic caress of a song that you could imagine having a future as elevator music.

This isn’t the language of the Stones or the Doors, but of Burt Bacharach (a composer used in the movie) and Michel Legrand. It’s invitational easy listening underlaid with apprehension. And it perfectly reflects the anxieties of four comfortably married, middle-class people who are starting to wonder if they’re missing out on the big, freewheeling party of the Age of Aquarius.

Sheik’s questioning, blurry music — which is expertly overseen by a figure identified as the Band Leader (the singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega) — matches not only the tentativeness of the leading quartet but also the overall tone of this production, which is directed by Scott Elliott and features a book by Jonathan Marc Sherman. That is both a relief and, finally, a problem.

When I had heard that the New Group was adapting the cinematic satire that made Mazursky’s reputation, I worried that it might become a vehicle for Elliott’s known fondness for ’60s kitsch and confrontational sexuality. After all, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” is often (incorrectly) remembered today as a smirky period piece, with that notorious ad that showed its four stars — Robert Culp, Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon — sharing a bed and presumably naked beneath the sheets.

Aside from a brief flash of bared bum in the final scene, there is no full nudity here, and the show looks at its characters not with a leer but a rueful smile of compassion. This is in keeping with the tone of the movie, which — like much of Mazursky’s subsequent work (“An Unmarried Woman,” “Blume in Love”) — pondered the restless longings that derail well-ordered lives.

But what makes the film feel fresh today is the loose, improvisational style of its performances, which are allowed to take their time in revealing character. Sherman’s script retains many of the set pieces and much of the dialogue from the movie, but out of context, they often feel flat.

It was the idiosyncratic performances that gave the movie a charm that sidestepped caricature. (As rendered by Cannon and Gould, who both received Oscar nominations, even a “not-tonight-dear-I-have-a-headache” sequence soared.)

In this version, Bob, a documentary filmmaker, and his wife, Carol (the Culp and Wood roles), are played by Joél Pérez and Jennifer Damiano. Their goofier, less glamorous best friends, Ted and Alice (the Gould and Cannon parts), are embodied here by Michael Zegen (the cheating husband on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) and Ana Nogueira.

Spiffy in their ’60s glad rags (Jeff Mahshie did the tasty costumes), they’re perfectly agreeable company, especially when they’re interacting with the audience. (More on that later.) But if the couples switched characters in mid-play, it wouldn’t make much difference.

They all sing pleasantly, recite their lines clearly and move with graceful awkwardness when the show requires it. (Kelly Devine did the musical staging.) Yet I could tell you very little about the characters’ specific personalities. And without that sense of ineffable individuality, the satire — of the Sixties-style search for enlightenment and eternal youth — feels formulaic.

This sense is compounded by the interchangeability of their songs. These numbers — featuring generally clunky lyrics by Sheik and Amanda Green — all draw from the same well of wistfulness. Alice, the most disapproving of the quartet, is set apart by staccato limerick-flavored solos, but they’re unbearably forced. (Of Ted she sings, “Whenever he tries to be erotic/It’s hard to describe, but could you prescribe a narcotic?”)

As our polymorphic host, the brandy-voiced Vega — a Grammy winner whose pop hits include “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner” — is a delightful, smoothly sardonic presence. Whether embodying a spiritual masseur at an Esalen-style retreat, a bartender, or even a hunky tennis pro, she remains poised between embracing warmth and distancing coolness, a discreetly entertaining font of omniscience.

While I could have done without the show’s arch reflections on a time when smoking was still fashionable (in one scene, the characters identify themselves by their cigarette brands), Elliott’s staging is engagingly resourceful. The band is fully visible at the back of Derek McLane’s simple and mutable set, and microphones are always at the ready for when someone feels an insight coming on.

And when a scene requires more people than the cast can summon by itself — say, an encounter group — the performers enlist front-row audience members to fill in. This is normally the sort of interaction that makes me wince.

But Damiano, Pérez, Nogueira and Zegen are at their most relaxed and likable when they’re guiding reluctant theatergoers through the fourth wall. Mazursky’s movie ended with a lovely all-embracing coda, in which the leading characters drifted hopefully and curiously through a crowd of strangers.

It was a testimony to the question marks of potential — the fear, the hunger, the resentment, the kindness — within every person, and I couldn’t imagine it being captured onstage. But if this musical seldom succeeds in creating incisive individual character portraits, it’s pretty good at summoning the endless, poignant possibilities that lurk within a crowd.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

Tickets Through March 22 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; 917-935-4242, thenewgroup.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

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