Imagine the intersection of two distinctive subcultures, circa 1999: the evangelical Christian abstinence movement and the phone-sex industry. One traffics in delayed gratification, the other in fantasy fulfillment.
It's a stretch to envision a chaste young Christian woman, a cross around her neck and an engagement ring on her finger, catering to the lusts of anonymous men. But from this unlikely premise, Michael Hollinger (book, lyrics) and Robert Maggio (music) have wrought TouchTones, a racy, quirky, engaging, and ultimately romantic musical about the elusiveness of intimacy. Emmanuelle Delpech directs a terrific ensemble in this world premiere on the Arden Theatre Company's Arcadia Stage through Dec. 3.
Hollinger is familiar to Philadelphia, and especially to Arden, audiences for works such as Opus, Red Herring, and Incorruptible. His shows — from farce to drama — are witty and formally elegant. TouchTones is Hollinger's 10th Arden premiere, but the first musical (though he has written others). It also is his first collaboration with Maggio, whose oeuvre includes dance scores and orchestral and theater music.
When she was 17, Christine (a winning Alex Keiper) met Justin (Michael Doherty, gracefully awkward) at church camp. The show opens with the couple taking a vow to abstain from premarital sex. Five years later, with their wedding in view, Christine wants to trade sexy talk for action. Justin urges patience, but meanwhile, he has been scratching his own itch, surreptitiously, over a phone line with a woman named Mercedes.
The service is called TouchTones, and in this fantasy world, nobody's name is real. Identity itself is fluid. Before picking up a call, each phone-sex operator typically asks, "Who am I?"
Splitting up with Justin, Christine signs on as a phone-sex operator. She is coached by ace Brad (the charismatic Darick Pead), who has 23 aliases but favors the identity of a Latin lover, Marco. He helps her find her inner Delilah, the temptress to whom she sings a comic love song before intermission.
The boss of the boiler room is Pearl (the great Joilet F. Harris), who advises her crew "You Gotta Be Who They Want." Operators Gary (Kevin R. Free) and Holly (Jess Conda) vie to tell the best bad-date story, and Teresa (April Ortiz) has secret romantic troubles of her own. They're a sympathetic bunch — a community conjured by sound designer Rick Sims' ringing phones, scenic designer Tim Mackabee's office set, Alison Roberts' casual costumes, and Mike Inwood's lighting.
Hollinger is a clever wordsmith and an adept storyteller. Maggio's score is eclectic, with elements of jazz, opera, and hip-hop, as well as traditional show music. The comic numbers — including the bad-date throw-down, "Dream Date" — are particularly fine. But the score turns expressive and poignant when the Christine and Justin urge one another "to see my soul/Know me broken/Know me whole."
TouchTones is bathed in an odd nostalgia for the era just before webcams and ubiquitous online pornography. It suggests that technology (like fantasy, like abstinence) can both impede and enhance intimacy — and that a suave Ivy League dropout with a leather jacket, a surfeit of corkscrews, and 23 aliases is not to be trusted.