Dec. 17, 2004


Hard work, talent but…
By David Ollington

The Unicorn Theatre has put quality artistic values into their production of composer/playwright Gregg Coffin's Convenience. Director Cynthia Levin made wise casting decisions, assembling five skilled, expressive actor/singers for the show.

Donna Thomason as Liz brings her usual dry and keen sense of humor to the role, a woman dealing with difficult decisions and realizations. Gary Holcombe as Abe, Liz's suitor, sings with a rich baritone sound and plays a believably awkward but sensitive man. John-Michael Zuerlein plays Vince, Liz's son. Justin Van Pelt sings the role of Ethan, Vince's lover. Both men sing with a contemporary rock sound, fitting for the musical style, bright and piercing.

Top Dog/Underdog(l to r) John-Michael Zuerlein (as Vince) and Donna Thomason (as Liz) in the Unicorn Theatre production of the musical, Convenience. (photo by Ron Berg Photography and courtesy of Unicorn Theatre)

Coffin chose to compose the musical with an expressionistic device: two women play the role of Liz. Well into Act One, Terri Adams enters as Young Liz. Levin staged the dual role with clarity, and Adams portrays Young Liz with a natural understatement. She sings perfectly.

Atif Rome's set clarifies the location of the action with a fresh approach to the use of space. One side of the stage is empty, at various times the new, unfurnished home for the young gay couple, at other times a workspace for Abe's construction firm. The opposite side of the stage has increased clutter, signifying the location of Abe's boyhood bedroom and Liz's archaically decorated kitchen. The conscious asymmetry connects us to the crowded memories of the characters.

Jeffrey Cady's lighting design chisels the space, efficiently illuminating only what's necessary, thanks in great part to the expert timing of Stage Manager Rebecca Martin. Cady illuminates Vince's childhood fantasies of science fiction experiences with hypnotically undulating blue light. Sound Designer David Kiehl chose the sound of a door slam as an appropriate motif to echo the harsh sentiments between Liz and Vince.

They did everything right. Unfortunately, Levin chose a work that falls short of satisfaction.

Coffin, granted, wanted to create a show about inaction. Abe proposes to Liz, kneeling and presenting a ring. She's unable to decide about marrying him and procrastinates an answer. Ethan emphatically urges Vince to return home and come out of the closet to his mother. Vince makes it home and proceeds to put off the admission.

As Shakespeare proved with Hamlet, theatre about procrastination can work. But Coffin repeatedly stops the action of the play to allow the characters to turn to the audience and belt tedious songs about their inner workings. Rather than witnessing the discomfort of character interaction, we hear repetitive poetry with contemporary rock opera melodies.

Vince returns home to come out to his mother. "The bus to your youth now boarding at Gate 6," he sings.

After the introduction of the double-cast mother role, one older (Thomason), one younger (Adams), we get an unending repetition of each morning's goings-on. The boyfriend Ethan appears, symbolically opening the closet door, singing, "It's your first day home, when you gonna tell her?" over and over, representing the sound of the alarm clock.

The mothers yell "Breakfast!" then turn to us and sing "Are we a bad mother if we wish he hadn't shown up?" The scene tediously repeats, somewhat building in intensity. Though there are moments of difficult mother/son confrontation, Coffin emphasized the characters' inner workings, unnecessarily slowing down the action.

The build of the breakfast scenes leads to a waltz with mother and son. Some swing dance moves figure into a later number, as does satirical back-up singer motion. But the program does not credit a choreographer.

In addition to playing Ethan, Vince's lover, Van Pelt plays Vince as an eight-year-old boy. Grudges, recollection and long-time resentments resonate throughout Coffin's work, with Vince's parent’s divorce when he was eight as a resonant memory. A lengthy number "Little Space Man" has Young Vince expressing his science fiction fantasies. Van Pelt sang and delivered well, but the number served no progressive purpose. Later Young Liz convinces Vince to help Young Vince, his younger self, "say goodbye to his daddy." Coffin, rather than taking us into the action of Vince connecting with his inner child, again has the characters sing about how he's going to, stopping the show for tedious expression.

"Undo the things that I have done," "I've got to break it to her carefully," "Is there something that we're proving sitting on this fence," are examples of Coffin's lyrics that he uses to express the mental vacillation involved in the characters' lengthy decision-making. The contemporary rock modulations in Coffins' melodies hold more weight than the moving of the plot.

A lot of work and talent went into this production. Hearing these performers sing the work and seeing the expressive portrayals may prove worthwhile. But Coffin's creation moves like a car without a transmission.

Convenience runs through Dec. 26 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main. Performances are Tuesday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. A post-show discussion is scheduled to follow the performance on Sunday, Dec. 19. Tickets may be purchased at the Unicorn Box Office by calling 816-531-7529 ext. 10 or online at

David Ollington can be contacted at or



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