Reviewed by Will Stackman
Sometimes a title conspires against the intent of a show. "See What I Wanna See" the title of The Wife's nightclub number in the first of two almost separate music theatre pieces by Michael John LaChiusa is not a bad summary of the theme for the whole show, including the two Noh-like mini-music dramas which serve as preludes for each act. But on a marquee, it comes across as flippant and suggests another pop music effort, which is far from the case here. These pieces have pedigrees that traces back to Weill and up through cutting edge composers of today.
LaChiusa, responsible for book, lyrics, and music, has adapted three stories from an enigmatic early 20th century Japanese fabulist, Ryonosuke Akutagawa, into a compelling piece of modern musical theatre. The preludes, set in medieval Japan, involve a pair of lethal lovers, "Kesa and Morito". The first half of the show is a retelling of "In the Grove" made famous by Akira Kurosawa's ground-breaking film, "Rashomon." The action has been reset to 1951 New York, during the first run of the film. This almost operatic effort, entitled "R Shamon" is not sung-through but has melodic intricacies not usually associated with the American Musical. The second half, "Gloryday", which seems more conventional, is based on "The Dragon." Both retellings are set mainly in Central Park. "R Shamon" had an early version in 1996; "Gloryday", which the composer began by 2000 came into focus after 9/11 and is set one year after. The two pieces were joined and the preludes added for the premiere at Williamstown in 2005 and the Public Theatre run in October of that year, which featured Idina Menzel and Marc Kudisch as "Kesa and Morita."
The total cast is merely five people. Aimee Doherty, who's had a number of notable performances in recent seasons, opens the first half as adulterous Kesa in medieval Japan, then becomes Lily, the Wife, in "R Shamon". She's a night club singer. Tenor Andrew Giordiano, back in town once again, is her Husband, Louie, who runs a fleet of taxis. He's also Morito. The Thief, played by Emerson grad, Andrew Schufman, has become a knife-carrying wiseguy, last name Mako. June Babolan, seen last season as Emma Goldman over at the New Rep, is the medium who channels the Husband's version of his murder. The fifth character, played by Brendan McNab , is the janitor of the movie house where the film is playing, who finds Louie's body taking a short cut through the Park. Or so he says. LaChiuisa has kept quite close to the ambiguities of Akutagawa's original, with the Wife as the catalyst. Doherty rises to the challenge of the role. Under Jonathan Goldberg's astute music direction, the ensemble makes the score intelligible, even when the action becomes strange.
"Glorydays", while also ambiguous, is more focused and musically conventional. The central character is now McNab, seen last season as the radical in Speakeasy's "Kiss of the Spider Woman." In the second part, he's a disillusioned Catholic priest, who on a whim posts a sign in Central Park stating that a miracle will occur in two weeks. Babolan gives a bravura performance as his atheist Aunt Monica, with two strong numbers, "The Greatest Practical Joke" and "There Will Be a Miracle." She and the rest of the cast become a chorus of people who begin gathering to await the gloryday. That term is coined by a derelict in the park who used to be a CPA, played by Giordano, whose tenor notes are best displayed in "Central Park." Doherty becomes an actress down on her luck who seduces McNab on a whim. Shufman reappears as an on the scene TV reporter ready to exploit the situation. A few themes from the first act are insinuated into the priest's music, but the two sections are parallel at best, not integrated. One wonders if the whole work will be developed further in the future.
Emerson design specialist Brynna C. Bloomfield's unit set for this production is an architectural creation reminiscent of origami, backed by the suggestion of the famous gate. The scene is expertly lit by MIT's Karen Perlow, whose lighting sets the tone for much of the production. Costumes were created by Emerson's Rafael Jaen and capture the three periods of the show, particularly the film noir tone of "R Shamon." Director Stephen Terrell, also from Emerson where he's head of Music Theatre, keeps the action flowing with the help of fight director, Meron Langser, a Tuft's PhD candidate. The excellent technical support we've come to expect from the Lyric serves to bring together a sometimes difficult script. Strong musicianship from the ensemble helps, of course, along with their experience. The association of the staff with various academic departments provides additional resources as well.
Michael John LaChiusa is a unique voice in today's musical theatre, taking it into uncharted territories. Fans of traditional musical comedy won't find much song and dance in his more serious works. Connoisseurs of modern opera know his work, especially his efforts for Audre McDonald, who also appeared in his "Marie Christine" on Broadway. His most popular remains "The Wild Party" done with George C. Wolfe. However, whether his talents will ever coalesce into a real landmark for the American Musical Theatre remains to be seen.