"Romance Romance" is the sort of musical you want very much to be able to like. To begin with, it's American. We don't get too many of those.
Second, it's literate: one of its acts is based on a 19th-century Viennese model, the other on a 19th-century French one. Lastly, it's the creation of people with obvious talent.
For all its virtues, "Romance Romance" is a show that keeps you at a distance.
The first act, called "The Little Comedy," is based on a story by Arthur Schnitzler, a novelist whose understanding of modern neuroses was admired by his contemporary Sigmund Freud. The story is about two jaded, upper-class Viennese who disguise themselves as "simple people" to rediscover the thrill of unsophisticated love.
Ultimately, the material is arch and clever. You don't feel you're rediscovering simple affection. Rather, you feel you're being let in on a joke.
Moreover, Barry Harman, who wrote the book and lyrics, retains Schnitzler's device of telling his story in letters. This makes the characters seem narrators rather than participants in their own drama.
Harman's lyrics are smart, Keith Herrmann's music bubbly and ardent. Sometimes the music has the proper lilt, but sometimes its "pop" style jars with Steven Jones' witty period costumes or Steven Rubin's elegant sets.
I don't know the Jules Renard play on which the second act is based, but I suspect it has a charm this updated version lacks. Instead of turn-of-the-century France, we are in the Hamptons, where charm is not in abundant supply. We watch a man and woman, who seem happily married to two other people, taunt one another about their fidelity.
There is something distasteful about watching two people seduce each other so nastily. While many of their observations about contemporary life are true, they have a glibness that makes you dislike both characters rather than sympathize with their yearning for each other.
Scott Bakula is a terrific leading man, more suitable, though, to the Hamptons than to Old Vienna. He does an especially rich job with a simple, powerful song, "Words He Doesn't Say."
Alison Fraser, an extremely versatile singer, gives in too readily to the unpleasantness of both her characters.
Deborah Graham and Robert Hoshour are appealing in supporting roles. The production is smoothly directed and choreographed.
Is it inevitable that a show called "Romance Romance" has to be about cynicism and disenchantment rather than anything as basic as love?
As Michael Feinstein, piano at hand, is rhetorically asking these Broadway nights, "Isn't It Romantic?" We have been assured for so long that what we as people, and our theater as theater, have been lacking is a sense of the Romantic. So perhaps, as the world turns, Romance is just waiting around the corner, waiting patiently for another spin.
That's the gamble being taken by the producers of "Romance/Romance," a double-dollop of the romantic spirit, laced with a little cynical skepticism, which last night at the Helen Hayes Theater completed the trek from an Off-Broadway showcase to a Broadway opening.
The two separate but related one-acters - with book and lyrics by Barry Harman and music by Keith Herrmann - are intimate musicals, reducing spectacle to the bare bones of four actors and two settings. "Starlight Express" it isn't.
Nor is it Romance with the swashbuckling confidence of composer Sigmund Romberg, or even the smooth, cigaret-lighting, smokey charm of actor Paul Henreid. "Romance/Romance" is about people searching for Romance, not people who have it. Which is perhaps modern, and perhaps sad.
Just as the evening is a pair of sketches, the show's joys and disappointments are equally mixed. The book, and perhaps even, admittedly to a lesser extent, the lyrics by Harman, are neat, adroit, and wittily pertinent.
They very successfully suggest, in literary terms, romance for our time: this new romance of seekers rather finders, this romance for the have-nots rather than the haves.
But unfortunately Keith Herrmann's music never take off and flies. It trickles when it should gush, murmurs when it should shout, and is musically unmemorable and emotionally inaudible throughout an evening that seemed longer than it was.
Harman has done his job well; he just needed a George Gershwin, or, better yet, a Kurt Weill, to complete it. Each of the musicalets in "Romance/Romance" has been given a piquant source.
The first, "The Little Comedy," is based on a short story by the Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler, author of "La Ronde," "Anatole," etc., and an expert in love on the ironic side.
Here we have two jaded Viennese at the turn of this century: a young woman accustomed to be kept by her lovers in style, and a man of independent means, accustomed to maintaining just such keeping.
Tired and bored with love's recurrent patterns, he decides to pose as a penniless poet, while she, also wanting variation, sets aside her finery and steps out on the town as a simple seamstress.
They meet on the Prater, and have a torrid affair, given a naughtily delicious twist of difference by their twin deceptions - which, and this provides the sketch with its diverting epistolarial form, they relate delightedly in letters written to their respective friends, his in Venice, hers in Paris.
The second musical sketch, "Summer Share," is a scene of love among the yuppies in the upwardly mobile oceanic reaches of The Hamptons. But this too has a classic background, for it is based on Jules Renard's play "Pain de Menage."
Renard, like Schnitzler an expert on the ambiguous working of contemporary romance, was a prolific French novelist who died at the age of 44 in 1910. The man's complete works were published in 16 volumes, but today he is really only remembered for that wonderful 1932 Julien Duvivier movies "Poil de Carotte," based on Renard's autobiographical tale of growing up with his father.
Harman has taken "House Bread" and given it this Wonderloaf-style contemporary baking in the Hamptons, with two couples sharing a beach cottage.
Both couples are happily married, but the special zing has departed from the marital bond. Two of the partners, who have been platonic friends since high school, appear to find in one another the romance they miss in their respective, and seemingly staid, spouses.
Harman's own staging is efficient, and the scenery by Steven Rubin and costumes by Steven Jones smartly evoke in the first scene that Viennese style of Art Nouveau known as Jugendstil, a point wittily underlined by having a Gustav Klimt reproduction on the wall in the summery anonymity of the Hamptons beach-house.
Of the performers, the one newcomer to the cast, Scott Bakula, both as the satiated Viennese and the bewildered yuppie, is outstanding. He has the makings of a major Broadway star. As his partner in romance, Alison Fraser proves charming, and the two stars are joined by Deborah Graham and Robert Hoshour in minor roles.
But not since Robert Preston and Mary Martin said: "I Do, I Do" have two people had to support a Broadway musical virtually by themselves. The sad thing is that the musical - or at least its music - doesn't really support them.
''Romance Romance,'' lately the littlest big musical Off Off Broadway, has made it uptown, in a slightly enhanced production that loses nothing of the charm and intelligence of the original and gains a thoroughly winning performance by Alison Fraser.
Down at the Actor's Outlet Theater last season, Ms. Fraser was a pleasure; at the Helen Hayes, in romantic Broadway tradition, she is a star. Looking at moments a little like a young Angela Lansbury, sounding just a little like Bernadette Peters, she radiates a witty presence all her own, from the moment she delivers her first smashing solo, ''Goodbye, Emil.'' (''It was never true romance/ Just a question of finance.'') After that, when the spotlight is on her, which is most of the time, the evening sparkles.
Ms. Fraser is busiest during the first half of this two-tale, four-character show. In ''The Little Comedy,'' based on an Arthur Schnitzler story set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, she is Josefine, a demimondaine ''with a very active past behind her,'' who has wearied of the wear and tear of filling sensational gowns (by Steven Jones), emptying champagne bottles and dancing the night away. Emil's departure gives her a chance to play at being a working girl and so to meet a seemingly impecunious poet named Alfred (Scott Bakula).
You guessed it. The rich playboy Alfred, dissatisfied with his round of passing relationships, has changed his tails for a corduroy jacket, and before you can say ''It's Not Too Late,'' as Alfred and Josefine do in a hopeful duet (''Isn't there a chance/Of finding romance?''), the disguised pair meet and make a brief try at being impecunious together. They have 19 days of love for its own sake, including a weekend in the country with bad food, bad wine, insects and boredom. How much can a boulevardier and boulevardiere take of that kind of romance?
Barry Harman, who directed along with writing the book and the bright lyrics (''Goodbye, Emil, farewell/ And thanks for buying what I had to sell''), catches Schnitzler's soft cynicism and makes us like these two phonies, who know exactly how phony they are. The device of telling the story through their letters to friends can drag, but it is never long between songs. Waltzing by, elusive spirits of romance, are two white-clad figures in harlequin masks (Deborah Graham and Robert Hoshour), who have more room for their whirlings around Steven Rubin's elegantly simple set than they did down at Actor's Outlet.
The one new cast member, Mr. Bakula, comes into his own in the second story, ''Summer Share,'' based on a play by Jules Renard and reset in the Hamptons in August 1988. Two married couples in their 30's are occupying a summer house, where ''everybody respects the rules.'' But sure enough, Sam (Mr. Bakula), who is married to Barb, and Monica (Ms. Fraser), who is married to Lenny, find themselves moving past flirtation (otherwise known as ''safe sex''), closer and closer to doing the Hamptons hop.
Keith Herrmann's diverting if not distinctive music, which had a pseudo-fin de siecle lilt in the first act, takes on a pop-rock beat that seems made for Mr. Bakula, who is definitely more at home in the Hamptons than among the Hapsburgs. He puts plenty of feeling into the evening's big love song, ''Words He Doesn't Say.'' And his reprise with Ms. Fraser of ''It's Not Too Late'' cleverly combines the two tales and their four or six personas.
In ''Summer Share,'' too, Ms. Graham and Mr. Hoshour (Barb and Lenny) find their singing voices and employ them agreeably in the moody ''Small Craft Warnings'' and the funny ''Think of the Odds,'' where they weigh the likelihood of their spouses connecting and find it only too likely. They also get to perform the evening's sight-gag, as a couple of geriatrics doing a soft-shoe with the help of canes and a walker, while avowing their interest in sex despite everything. (''My teeth are in a glass/I've had a triple by-pass.'')
The evening glides from Vienna wry to Hampton rue, with Mr. Harman, who did the book and lyrics for ''Olympus on My Mind,'' slipping only occasionally into sentimentality. ''The Little Comedy'' is the shrewder tale, but both plays deal with the limitations that character or mere habit place on desire, for good or bed. However much Alfred and Josefine dream of wholesome love, they are not about to suffer discomfort to achieve it. However much Sam and Monica long for an affair, they are too entangled in their marriages. (Well, he is, anyway.)
Smallness is the theme here. The voices are not big, the dances not spectacular, the stage not enormous or ablaze with remarkable effects. And the emotions never get operatic; gestures toward adventure turn into shrugs of accommodation. In the 20th century as in the 19th, we are being told, among the bourgeoisie as among the swells, that realistic resignation is the common denouement to romance romance. That could be the stuff of life-style babble, and it comes worrisomely close in the slightly prolonged exchanges of ''Summer Share,'' but somebody always breaks into song before things get too thick. In a Broadway season so full of pretentiousness, this show is delightfully small scale, the scale on which most of us live.