Despite one New Jersey critic commenting that "The Ark" "cheerfully bobs along" and that the "easygoing songs . . . come along frequently and ride agreeably upon the ear," the off Broadway maiden voyage has been torpedoed by a handful of New York area critics.

This on the heels of a brief run of 36 previews and only eight regular performances for the musical by Michael McLean and Kevin Kelly.

One of the show's producers, Erik Orton, who lives in Manhattan but has strong Utah ties, said the show closed last Sunday after it was determined that there was insufficient support to keep "The Ark" afloat.

"The audiences seemed to like it," Orton said. "We did an audience survey over about half-a-dozen performances and got a 93 percent approval rating. Then we waited for some nice quotes from the critics, but when the reviews came out, they had nothing nice to say."

"I'm still trying to figure out what happened," McLean said by phone from Seattle (where his concert "The Forgotten Carols" started its traditional holiday). "There were so many miracles to make this show happen in the first place, and I hoped that we'd find just one more miracle to get us over the edge, because finding an audience would take awhile.

"(A few weeks ago) I watched the audiences who came night after night, and we were still rewriting and watching the show get tighter. These were people who don't even know me, they're not my regular fan base. I bumped into one woman on the train ride into New York from White Plains — she was one of four ladies who have been going to theater for 20 years. They were going to see 'The Woman in White,' but they also came to see 'The Ark' and they all just loved it.

"One of them said, 'You could tell Andrew Lloyd Weber a thing or two about how to write a musical.' "

Directed by Ray Roderick (who also directed the recent national tour of "The Music Man") and featuring Adrian Zmed as Noah and Annie Golden as his wife, the show was severely lambasted by three of the Manhattan theater community's most important opinion-givers — the New York Times, Variety and the www.broadway.com Web site.

Orton said last week that he and the show's creative team and backers had initially held out hope a few days earlier that they could hold on, but the New York Times review "was the final nail in the coffin."

There was one very positive review, by Irene Backalenick, written for Backstage.Com, a Web site geared to those in the acting profession. She called it "a refreshing new musical" and added that " . . . it works because a gifted team has created a tightly knit book, haunting lyrics and diverting music."

At the other end of the scale, Miriam Horn, in a Nov. 16 Times review, who called the lyrics "repetitive and banal," made a point of noting that both McLean and Kelly "are practicing Mormons," adding that "their primary aim, it seems, is to praise God and a particular set of family values."

McLean responded that the production team had "this universal appeal. The musicial director, a brilliant guy, is Jewish . . . the director came from a Presbyterian background . . . Erik's co-producer is a devout Catholic."

The end result, he added, was a show "that was about family and faith and forgiveness, but not 'preachy.' There was a great feeling throughout the process."

(I have seen at least five variations of "The Ark" as it was being developed in Utah, and as it's based on Old Testament

scriptures, there is virtually nothing that can be construed as "Mormon" about the musical's storyline.)

Equally vicious was Marilyn Stasio's Nov. 14 review in Variety, which said in the first paragraph that "the domestic issues that plague Noah's family on this tedious trip are so banal that they might as well have been thrashed out around the kitchen table, back on dry land."

Stasio did, however, give high marks to the newly opened 37 Arts Theater complex — especially Ryan Powers' sound design, which offered realistic animal noises from all corners of the venue, and scenery designer Beowulf Boritt's rough-planked, atmospheric set. (Boritt has designed productions for the Utah Shakespearean Festival and for the Tony Award-winning "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.")

Stasio also said that D.B. Bonds " . . . tackles the defiant Ham with such conviction that he almost humanizes his cliched character."

Rob Kendt, in a review for the broadway.com Web site, said that " . . . with the exception of a few big numbers, most of this labored, lukewarm concoction . . . plays like Sunday-school story-theater with higher production values" and added that "it's hard to muster much amusement . . . at the flimsy pieties and still flimsier stabs at irreverence."

"McLean and Kelly try nobly to have it both ways: to tell a story of divine judgment and mercy, and to create a family-friendly romp. The result in this case is a creaky, leaky vessel," he concluded.

Michael Sommers of the New Jersey-based Star-Ledger did give the production a slightly positive review (as quoted in the first paragraph of this article), but he also said: "It's one thing to create a competent musical of affirmative faith intended for nondenominational viewing. On the other hand, it's questionable to string songs of praise and devotion into a paltry scenario that doesn't seriously address the challenges that Noah faced.

"Despite the neat staging of . . . the production and the warm-hearted music-making of its talented company, 'The Ark' pleasantly journeys across only shallow waters and never gets anywhere truly meaningful."

Just a few weeks ago, actress-singer Maureen McGovern noted that the cynical East Coast press was largely to blame for the short run of "Little Women: The Musical" on Broadway, a show that she admitted was not "edgy" enough for New York audiences, but which is finding a large and appreciative following across the country.

Co-producer Orton hopes that "The Ark" could yet find a place, either on tour or possible licensed regional productions.

"New York doesn't have a copyright on opportunity," Orton said, quoting a line from "Meet Me in St. Louis." He added that the cast is going ahead with recording an "original cast" recording, which may or may not be distributed to the general public, but would at least preserve this particular production for posterity.

But Orton said that posting the closing notice "was like having a child on life support and having to pull the plug. . . . In the end, we gave our best and we have no regrets."


E-mail: ivan@desnews.com