Touchtones, a musical —2017

music by Robert Maggio

book & lyrics by Michael Hollinger

story by Michael Hollinger and Robert Maggio

A new musical comedy about love, sex, and the fantasy at the other end of the line

It’s 1999, the cusp of a new millennium, and technology promises intimacy as well as anonymity.  Christine and her fiancé Justin wander into this titillating world of role-play, secret delights, and shifting identities; but who will they be when they come out again?  (And will they recognize themselves?)

Cast Breakdown

3 Men, 4 Women


TouchTones received its world premiere in October 2017 at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia, directed by Emmanuelle Delpeche, with musical direction by Ryan Touhey.

The cast included Alex Keiper, Michael Doherty, April Ortiz, Darick Pead, Joilet F. Harris, Kevin R. Free, and Jess Conda.


—Philadelphia Inquirer, October 26, 2017

“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.”

—DC Metro Arts, October 26, 2017

“TouchTones is a new musical by playwright/lyricist Michael Hollinger and composer Robert Maggio. Directed by Emmanuelle Delpech, it delves into the romantic relationship between Christine and Justin, two young people who have vowed to abstain from sex until they are married. When Christine discovers that Justin has been spending his free time dialing up a phone sex line called TouchTones – the show is set in 1999, when such services were constantly advertising on late night television – she decides to investigate the company. She ends up finding much more about the company – and about herself – than she ever could have dreamed.

Alex Keiper and Michael Doherty. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Alex Keiper and Michael Doherty. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Alex Keiper and Michael Doherty are well-matched as the naïve and quirky young couple. Keiper adeptly portrays her young and innocent character’s sexual and emotional growing pains. Doherty is hilarious as he grapples with Justin’s own issues and reacts to the fallout from Christine’s choices.

What makes TouchTones especially entertaining is its depiction of ordinary life and problems with humor, somewhat reminiscent of Neil Simon. Underpinning the humor are the rather serious themes of abstinence and sexuality. The contemporary music is an additional delight: Hollinger’s lyrics utilize informal speech and rhyme, while Maggio contributes straightforward, accessible melodies and pleasant harmonies. Musical Director Ryan Touhey leads a small combo of piano, reeds and percussion.

Keiper and Doherty are supported by an experienced ensemble who bring to life both the score and Melanie Cotton’s dynamic choreography. April Ortiz, as a TouchTones employee, moved me to tears in her solo, “What is Wrong.” Darick Pead (as Brad, another TouchTones employee) is also a strong singer and actor and is fittingly cast to contrast with the main couple. For example, in his duet with Christine, his smooth and well-produced voice is part of the character’s charm. In addition, Brad’s bravado contrasts with Justin’s insecurity and Christine’s inexperience. Joilet F. Harris as Pearl, the sassy owner of TouchTones, possesses a supple and rich voice, which resonates musically and embodies her character. Kevin R. Free and Jess Conda round out the marvelous ensemble with admirable comedic timing, flexible movement and solid vocalism.

The ensemble. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The ensemble. Photo by Mark Garvin.

My favorite songs are “Let Her Out,” “You Gotta Be Who They Want” (which spotlights the entire cast), “Circles” (a solo for Keiper) and “See Me–Ready” (a Keiper/Doherty duet). The back-and-forth shifts between speech and singing in the composition work especially well. The show moves appropriately fast and the musical numbers and conversations transition seamlessly.

This is an amusing musical comedy (with a few serious moments) that had the audience laughing for much of its two-hour running time. Thanks to the carefully constructed book and score, and the talents of the remarkable cast, every word was understandable and the acting believable.

The Arden’s Arcadia Stage is a small and intimate space, and the production crew and cast work it to their advantage. The set, designed by Tim Mackabee, swivels between Christine’s living room and the TouchTones offices. Spaces for monologues and vignettes are achieved with moveable furniture, lighting by Mike Inwood, and sound by Rick Sims. Alison Roberts’ costumes contribute to the down-to-earth, approachable atmosphere of the musical.

TouchTones explores the lives of some ordinary people, with problems we can all relate to—and everybody has fun in the process!

The musical was developed through the Independence Foundation’s New Musical Works Initiative, which included workshop productions at the Arden and Villanova University. There will be post-show discussions after the performances on November 2, 8, 12, 15 and 26.

Running time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.”

—Talkin’ Broadway Regional News, October 2017

“TouchTones is an outrageously funny new musical about chastity, phone sex, intimacy, and being true to yourself. Michael Hollinger’s book and lyrics are devilishly clever and the energetic ensemble makes the most of the excellent material. This production marks Hollinger’s tenth premiere at the Arden Theater Company. The fun, uncomplicated score, with music by Robert Maggio, has a lot of spirit and some truly memorable numbers. There are a few songs that miss the mark, but you will probably be laughing too hard to care.

At 17 years old, Christine and Justin proudly don golden rings and take a vow of chastity, promising to remain virgins until after they are married. Fast forward five years to 1999 and the long wait has taken its toll. With only four months until their wedding, Christine is desperate to go all the way and Justin has resorted to calling a sexy 900 number known as TouchTones. When an extremely frustrated Christine finds out that Justin has been talking to “Mercedes” every day (sometimes twice!) she seeks revenge by becoming a phone sex operator herself. The diverse and worldly wise staff at TouchTones befriend Christine and help her bring out the confident woman waiting inside. Will the new Christine go back to Justin or sow her wild oats with smart, handsome, and sexually liberated co-worker Brad?

Director Emmanuelle Delpech’s campy and upbeat production is extremely well cast and loads of fun to watch. Alex Keiper is completely earnest and just the right amount of naughty as Christine. Justin is adorably awkward, thanks to an endearing performance by Michael Doherty. Darick Pead is effortlessly charming and dead sexy as experienced operator Brad, with rich and warm vocals to boot. Joilet F. Harris brings her bright, powerful voice and an amazing sense of humor to Pearl, the no-nonsense owner of TouchTones. The entire ensemble work off each other to get big laughs and create a real sense of office camaraderie.

TouchTones can boast several catchy upbeat numbers (“You Gotta Be Who They Want,” “Sex Ain’t What It Used to Be”) as well as a few memorable songs that capture the humor and spirit of the show (“Ready” is my favorite), but the score is musically and thematically inconsistent. Songs like “What Do I Tell Them” and “What’s Wrong” do not have enough emotional impact and others are repetitive. Blackouts after almost every song—mostly to allow for set changes as Tim Mackabee’s design shifts between the TouchTones office and other locations—can make things feel a bit choppy too.

Even though the characters deal with some explicit sexual topics and drop a couple of f-bombs, TouchTones is so lighthearted and humorous it will appeal to a wide array of audiences. Keeping things naughty rather than raunchy allows the audience to explore a variety of topics that are normally taboo. And you don’t even have to pay by the minute.”