March 18, 2011

KC Stage

The story of Marvin
by David Ollington

Musical Theatre Composer/Lyricist William Finn stands as one of the most accomplished in his field, the flavor of the year. His creation, the 2005 Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, appears on the current season lists for university theatre programs, summer stock companies, and even high schools. The American Heartland Theatre ran Spelling Bee last summer; the first locally produced professional production of it.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (l to r) Katie Karel (High School Sweetheart), Shelby Floyd (Miss Goldberg), Jared Hill (Marvin) and Molly Denninghoff (Wife) (photo by Jeff Eubank)

Finn made a unique mark earlier in his career with a trilogy of full-length musicals. In Trousers, March of the Falsettos, and Falsettoland tell the story of Marvin, his coming out, falling in love, his family, and the loss to AIDS of his lover Whizzer. The Unicorn Theatre presented Falsettoland in 1993, a successful undertaking so well attended that the Unicorn extended the run.

And watch for the April 1 opening of a revue Make me a Song, the Music of William Finn, the premiere offering of a new production company in KC, Spinning Tree Theatre. William Finn is in demand, hot and popular.

March 11, the production group Egads!, under the direction of the prolific Steven Eubank, opened Finn’s In Trousers, the first installment of the Marvin trilogy. With a predominantly operatic structure (more song that spoken word), In Trousers uses flashbacks, introspective rock arias, and healthy serving of camp to tell the story of Marvin’s growing up, his marriage to a woman (Molly Denninghoff) and his subsequent coming out of the closet as gay. 

Despite a consistently brassy sound to the music, the show’s subject matter remains introspective. A central piece of designer Jeff Eubank’s set, a bed placed center stage, serves as home base for Marvin, played by Jared Hill. The show opens with him awakening in his bed singing, “The man is dreaming in trousers, laughing in trousers, playing in trousers, making music in trousers.”

Three female actors make up the remainder of the cast, Denninghoff as “Wife,” Katie Karel as “Sweetheart,” and Shelby Floyd as “Miss Goldberg,” each woman playing a significant other in Marvin’s life. The plot centers on the relationship with Wife, with several flashbacks into Marvin’s associations with the other two.

A clever device delineates the time of each scene, helping us keep track of where the story lies. Jeff Eubank placed behind the bed a large set of blinds that respectively display the words “THEN” or “NOW.”

The scenes from Marvin’s youth include his encounters with his steady Sweetheart, Karel, and a schoolboy crush on a teacher, Floyd as Miss Goldberg.

Steven Eubank, with his usual presentational originality, staged In Trousers with creative surprise. He leaves no nook of the Off Center Theatre stage unexplored, utilizing a trap door downstage center, and placing the drummer, Ron Ernst, behind an upstage wall of glass, as if he drums in Marvin’s aquarium.

Unlike The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, In Trousers relies on abundant directorial staging with minimal choreography. Eubank possesses strong choreographic skill (he directed and choreographed the Heartland production of Spelling Bee) and incorporates into In Trousers some minimal but delightful dance movement. In the Act II number “Whizzer Going Down,” Eubank made a sheet into a variegated choreographic device. It becomes alternatively a jump rope, then a dancing partner.

Lighting Designer Alex Perry made effective use of a strobe, accenting scenes with boldness and sensitivity. He also used color to illuminate the three women differently, a hue for each, in a way that enhances characterization.

Denninghoff and Karel, experienced and adroit performers on KC stages, reliably infuse dimension and integrity to their parts. Eubank discovered Shelby Floyd, young, formidable and talented. All three women possess strong vocal techniques. Finn’s composition requires good belters, and they all match the challenge.

Eubank assembled expressive musicians, a formidable cast, and a creative production team. He attacked the material, as he does all of his shows, with originality and flair. Finn’s composition, however, lacks repose. In Trousers weighs heavy on up-tempo, rock-driven music. A recurrent motif involves the three women, again, skilled belters, demanding attention from the male protagonist, Marvin, with bleated, dissonant, wails. In Trousers gets and stays loud.

Several days after I viewed In Trousers, I received an email from Egads! letting me know that they had received complaints about the loud volume of the production. Because of this, they have, since opening, made adjustments to the set up. Eubank has erected a wall muffling somewhat the sound from the horns/woodwind section, which has allowed them to bring down the volume of the entire show. This should make a notable improvement. Finn’s piece makes its point with exhaustingly raucous music; a lower decibel might soften the blow.

Egads! production of William Finn’s In Trousers runs until March 26 at the Off Center Theatre in Crown Center. Call 816-842-9999 or visit www.egadstheatre.com. For information on Spinning Tree Theatre’s Make Me a Song, visit www.spinningtreetheatre.com.

David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.