September 24, 2010

The rewards of perseverance
by David Ollington

Playwright Hunter Bell and composer/lyricist Jeff Bowen submitted a script for a new musical play to the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival.  From humble and rushed beginnings, their show made it to an off-Broadway opening, and following myriad challenges and triumphs, opened on Broadway.

Their journey to the Great White Way included joyous creative breakthroughs, difficult interpersonal conflict, and trying negotiations over edits, rewrites and other adjustments. Bell and Bowen performed in their own work, an economically produced piece with a small ensemble of actors and a keyboardist.

The show dramatizes these very events. From the onset, their charming piece makes reference to itself. Every detail of the dialogue and lyrics matches the neutral irony of the play’s name: [title of show], always in brackets. The Unicorn Theatre, last week, opened their 37th season with [title of show].

(l to r) Natalie Weaver as Susan, Seth Golay as Hunter, KC Comeaux as Jeff and Jessalyn Kincaid as Heidi in [title of show]. (photo by Cynthia Levin and courtesy of Unicorn Theatre)

Don’t miss it. A remarkable quartet of stellar local, professional actor/singers under Missy Koonce’s transcendent direction perform Bell and Bowen’s perfectly charming creation. Opening night, there was no question whether or not we’d rise to our feet for the ovation.

The New York Times compared [title of show] to A Chorus Line, the 1974 Michael Bennett musical about a dance audition. Where the players in A Chorus Line revealed the angst and ecstasy of life as a chorus dancer, [title of show]’s actors share the rollercoaster ride of creating the very words they speak and sing, taking what some might call the narcissistic tone of A Chorus Line to a completely postmodern level. Bell and Bowen wrote less about themselves and more about the creative process by simply showing us their adventures.

KC Comeaux as Jeff sings “A, D, F#, A,” each musical pitch connecting to its name. Jeff and Hunter (Seth Golay) discuss submitting a new musical to the New York Musical Theatre Festival, due in three weeks. Hunter suggests they base a show on a book or a straight play. Jeff counters with, “I thought we could write something new.”

“In three weeks?” Hunter asks. Then Hunter, inspired, says, “What if this first scene was us talking about what we’re going to write?”

Bowen and Bell establish this self-referential tone, and explore it with consistency throughout the work.

Jeff and Hunter fill out the application for the festival. The application requires them to enter a name for their musical. Their title reflects directly the words next to the blank on the application: “[title of show].”

They manage to satisfy the need for additional talent by inviting two female performers to join them in both the show’s creation and performance. Jessalyn Kincaid plays Heidi, a Broadway actor fitting [title of show] rehearsals between her auditions and performances. Natalie Weaver plays Susan, an office worker who years ago gave up on professional theatrical aspirations but still possesses the talent and eagerly participates.

The added characters’ lines stay true to the concept of the show, self referential and presentational. Heidi asks, “I’m sorry, are we in this scene now?” Susan orders a turkey burger and gives the number to the delivery service, “555-5555,” explaining that she’s saying that so the real phone number will be anonymous once she speaks onstage in performance.

Anthony T. Edwards, the show’s musical director and accompanist, plays Larry the pianist. Most of Edwards’ job is to accompany the songs. He has several non-verbal actions (like flipping off an annoying actor/singer), until Comeaux as Jeff says to him, “It’s ok, we worked it out with the union, you can talk,” another direct reference to what likely happened in course of mounting the original New York production.

The performers do stellar work with this material. They sing with accurate and expressive harmony, they move elegantly through Koonce’s staging, and they make the script hilarious by taking it completely seriously.

Koonce directed the show with trust for the brilliance of the libretto and music. The scenes pace well and the staging of the musical numbers shines. Koonce choreographed the songs with an enticing unpredictability and variety.

For “Die, Vampire, Die,” a song about all the ways our internal succubus can destroy our own creations, Koonce set up repetitive yet unpredictable movement patterns. For “September Song,” she had the actors make broad sweeps across the stage, making space the vehicle for expression, a drastically different choice. Throughout, she had the actors use every corner of the set designed by David Hawkinson.

Hawkinson’s set literally glitters with detail. It includes a balcony with plants and a fire escape ladder, a platform in front of windows that change with the use of various projections, and most hypnotic, a New York skyline we view through onstage, open windows. The shimmering skyscrapers on the backdrop catch the eye, at times distracting us from the onstage action. The two main male characters even refer to devising a production that needs nothing more than four chairs and a keyboard.  This stunning scenery belongs to another play. These actors and this director could have made the show work just as well in front of plain curtains.

Properties designer Gary Campbell and Stage Manager Jinni Pike manifested a thrillingly impressive moment during the number “Monkeys and Playbills.” Kincaid sings title after title of Broadway shows from the past. During this, Comeaux pulls out of a trunk a series of Playbills, programs from each production. He holds up each Playbill, in order, as Kincaid quickly sings each title, the programs matching perfectly the play names. Careful attention went into a segment that lasts seconds in performance.

Life challenges us. Bowen and Bell ironically and simply bring universality to the rewards of perseverance against obstacles, and Missy Koonce has orchestrated a vibrant expression of their work. The Unicorn has slated [title of show] to play until Oct. 10.  Watch for an extension of the run.

Call 816-531-PLAY (7529) extension 10 or visit www.UnicornTheatre.org for more information.


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

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