Marriott's 'Darling Grenadine' serves up bittersweet tale of addiction

“Darling Grenadine” - ★ ★ ★ ½

During the mid-1980s, one of my relatives battled drug addiction.

I never saw him at his worst, consumed by his disease. I never experienced the anguish his immediate family endured. When I encountered him at family gatherings he was agreeable and even-tempered. Looking back, I suppose he had to be. That congeniality likely kept a roof over his head and his loved ones (mostly) on his side.

Watching Marriott Theatre's premiere of “Darling Grenadine,” a grown-up musical about addiction, attraction and codependency, I couldn't help thinking how the central character - an alcoholic named Harry who gets along and (mostly) gets a pass from those around him - recalled my relative. I suspect other audience members may have a similar reaction to an all-too-common scenario. Of course, when it comes to subject matter for a musical, alcoholism doesn't leap immediately to mind. Then again, neither does serial murder, but Stephen Sondheim has done well by “Sweeney Todd.” And I suspect composer/lyricist/writer Daniel Zaitchik will do well by his quiet, urbane “Darling Grenadine,” which opens next year at New York's Roundabout Theatre.

Harry (Heath Saunders), left, and his canine pal Paul (Phillip Huber) share a moment in "Darling Grenadine," a new musical about addiction and attraction running through Aug. 18 at Marriott Theatre. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Zaitchik pairs witty, emotionally resonant lyrics and dialogue with a lovely, pop-enfused score featuring lilting waltzes, sweet jazzy duets and swingin' choral numbers. Days later, I haven't been able to get the sweet, sexy “Manhattan” out of my head where it's competing with the rueful “Party Hat” and the infectious “Grenadine,” a salute to the pomegranate-flavored mixer that inspired the title.

The score, whose boffo 11 o'clock number “Paradise” is sung by Katherine Thomas, is beautifully performed by members of director/choreographer Aaron Thielen's quintet. They're accompanied in the pit by conductor Patti Garwood's septet and onstage by trumpeter Mike Nappi, who periodically trades riffs with leading man Heath Saunders during several joyful asides.

Jingle writer Harry (Heath Saunders) falls in love with actress understudy Louise (Katherine Thomas) in "Darling Grenadine," a musical about addiction and attraction in its Chicago-area premiere at Lincolnshire's Marriott Theatre. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Intimate and emotional, the musical begins as an old-fashioned love story, with a New York composer and a Broadway actress meeting cute at the theater's stage door. We witness the budding romance between songwriter Harry (the effortlessly charming Saunders) and singer/actress Louise, played by Thomas, whose glorious upper range and emotional depth are a potent combination.

He's an endearing fabulist who resides in a chic NYC apartment with his faithful dog Paul. (The creation of Huber Marionettes, Paul is impeccably manipulated by marionette artist Phillip Huber. who captures canine behavior to a T). Living off the royalties from a burger chain jingle he composed, Harry seems disinclined to pursue another hit.

Royalties from Harry's (Heath Saunders), right, hit burger chain jingle bankroll the piano bar owned by best friend Paul (Nick Cosgrove) in Daniel Zaitchik's tuner "Darling Grenadine" at Lincolnshire's Marriott Theatre. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

As for Louise, she performs the “little, special funny bits” in the chorus of a Broadway musical. But while her talent deserves a spotlight, Louise fears stepping into it.

Observing their romance is Harry's longtime human pal Paul (a top-notch, nicely circumspect Nick Cosgrove), who runs the bar that Harry finances and where he plays piano. In exchange, human Paul keeps Harry's tumbler filled. Orbiting around them are assorted friends, colleagues and stock characters, all ably played by Allison Sill and Brandon Springman.

Along with the standard love story tropes, Zaitchik injects some backstage references for good measure. One of which, a character advising Louise not to “think so hard, it's a musical,” elicited the show's biggest laugh.

Besides riffing with songwriter Harry, trumpeter Mike Nappi also voices Harry's dog Paul in Marriott Theatre's production of the musical "Darling Grenadine." Courtesy of Liz Lauren

The dexterous Thielen keeps emotion in check and credible. But for me, the appeal of “Darling Grenadine” - aside from its tuneful score - rests with Zaitchik's frank examination of alcoholism: the insecurity it masks, the impact on the addict's loved ones, the codependency it fosters and the resentment that it breeds. Zaitchik makes no secret of Harry's alcoholism. It's evident in the opening number, when the smitten composer compares his chemistry with Louise to tonic and Tanqueray. And it's confirmed every time Harry sips from the silver flask he keeps in his jacket pocket.

Intended for mature audiences, the deliberate “Darling Grenadine” concludes on a note less than sweet, but not entirely bitter. Its coda will remain unspoiled here, but suffice to say it suggests that confronting addiction and dependency leads to a more authentic life.

I hope that's true.

<b>Location:</b> Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, (847) 634-0200 or

<b>Showtimes:</b> 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday; through Aug. 18

<b>Running time:</b> About 2 hours 30 minutes, including intermission

<b>Tickets:</b> $50-$60, dinner theater packages available

<b>Parking:</b> Valet parking available; free parking in adjacent lots

<b>Rating:</b> For adults; contains sexual situations, mature subject matter and adult language

Marriott Theatre stages new musical 'Darling Grenadine' inspired by real life

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