SUMMER STARTERS in Brief: Musicals

Book by Michael Zam
Music by Andy Monroe
Lyrics by Jack Lechner
Based on the Momoir by Dan Savage
Directed by Scott Elliott
The New Group at Theatre Row

Book by John Weidman
Music by David Shire
Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Directed by Sam Buntrock
The McCarter Theatre
(Princeton NJ)

Book by Mariana Elder
Music by Chris Miller
Lyrics by Nathan Tysen
Directed by Joe Caralco
Playwrights Horizons

Reviewed by David Spencer

If you allow me the liberty of fallaciously including in the current season anything that opened before July (let's just forget about awards deadlines and go by our inner clock), then the three best musicals of the season made their prsence known way after the hot air blown over the most disappointing musical theatre season in a very long time.

I know two of the three authors of The Kid (composer Andy Monroe and lyricist Jack Lechner, who collaborated with librettist Michael Zam) far too well to have offered a full review of the piece in these pages, and had too much inside exposure to its development through variously participating in and moderating the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, and having had my opinion as a colleague solicited by the authors at various phases of that development…but now that The Kid’s off-Broadway run at Theatre Row is over, I can say without the “conflict of interest” spectre that it’s as deserving of further development, leading to a Broadway transfer, as was Spring Awakening and Next to Normal. A lighter, and in a strange way, more traditional musical than either of those two—a feelgood show, come to think of it—it’s based on the book by sex columnist Dan Savage, a gay writer chronicling the process he and his partner went through to adopt a baby. Any criticism I’d make (which I’d tell the guys in private) addresses what seems to me only a few easily fixable aspects; taken on aggregate, score and book are top notch, featuring those ever-harder-to-find qualities of wit and tunefulness in abundance. And while director Scott Elliott is still finding his comfort zone with certain characteristics of the musical as a form, I was unprepared by his previous work for how much affinity he does have for it in terms of the large picture, which involves pacing, structure clarification and playing style. Mr. Elliot as well should be able to navigate his To Do list with brisk efficiency. Here’s hoping he gets the chance; and gets to reunite his lovely cast, which featured a charming Christopher Sieber in the lead, striking the perfect balance between jaundiced, wry observance and delicate vulnerability.


Another musical still in development but also in the oh-so-close stage is Take Flight, by redoubtable old masters John Weidman (book), David Shire (music) and Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics), currently at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey. It musicalizes—and personalizes and humanizes with deft artistry—the history of American flight (and in a larger sense the unique character of American pioneering) by alternating, intertwining and crossweaving story threads that concern key points in the lives of the Wright Brothers (Stanton Nash, Benjamin Schrader), Charles Lindbergh (Claybourne Elder) and Amelia Earhart (Jenn Colella). One of the rewarding and refreshing things about director Sam Buntrock’s production, in this day and age of over-production, is how it tells an epic story with nothing detectable in the way of high tech. Against a set (David Farley, also responsible for costumes) that represents, in a literal sense, only rolling ground and open sky, the simplest wagons of furniture are rolled on and off, the most rudimentary abstract skeletons (the Lindbergh and Earhart planes)—not much more than framed playground swings with a little extra aerodynamic balance—are suspended from above; and with that and not a whole lot else except story, song and actors to deliver them, the stage is fuller than at any Euro-musical spectacle, because the material is strong enough to engage the complicity of the audience's imagination in completing the illusion. It all leads to a remarkable finale tableau in which there is only the ensemble and the floor they stand on, yet the miracle of flight is stunningly convincing and even exhilarating.

                        There’s not an actor in it, from the leads (who also include William Youmans and Michael Cumpsty) to the supporting ensemble who doesn’t him-/herself achieve some moment of divine “elevation” performing a script that is compact yet rich, and a score (music and lyrics) that embodies both the epitome of musical theatre sophistication and a populist accessibility commensurate with Americana.

                        Again—it’s not quite THERE in the sense of having solved it all. I’m not sure I can pinpoint why (I suppose, in this instance, if I could, the creative team would have)…the best I can offer is that the opening sequences, though clearly establishing the evening, don’t quite lock into gear; that we’re a little too far into the first act before it finds its metaphorical wings. But oh the show that’s there once it does…


Finally, at Playwrights Horizons, there’s The Burnt Part Boys, a multiple developmental award-winner by relative newcomers Mariana Elder (book), Chris Miller (music) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics), and worthy of all its honors. Set in a West Virgina mining community in 1962, it tells the story of young teenager Pete (Al Calderon), an adventurous and angry lad who steals dynamite, prima cord and a detonator  box from his older brother’s kit—his older brother being a miner himself—and ventures off with wryer, more artistic pal Dusty (Noah Galvin) to blow up the mine where his father was killed ten years ago, to prevent its re-opening and danger to a new generation. (And along the way they’ll discover another same-age orphan of the mines, feisty young Frances [Molly Ranson] who has taken to living in the wilderness rather than being perceived by her peers as an oddball and an outcast.) When older brother Jake (Charlie Brady) discovers what Pete’s done, he grabs his co-worker pal Chet (Andrew Durand) to track the boys down before it’s too late. But there is more than chase and (possible) catch-up involved. Here in these mountains, the echoes of past generations, and folk heroes, echo everywhere—and historical pioneers, all of them looking not a little like Pete’s own dad (all personified by Michael Park) have their own messages to impart about adventure and manhood. (Randy Redd, Asa Somers and Steve French are a trio of additional miners who also do a little Greek chorus work, but manlier.)

                        For the most part, the intermissionless story is well told and earns its emotionalism (notwithstanding a slight lag around the 3/4 mark that could do with some compacting and/or trimming); and the score is a savvy amalgam of folk influences, richly complex high choral vocal arrangements, winks at familiar iconography (e.g. without direct quotation, there’s nonetheless an unmistakable—and affectionate—throwaway swipe at the Disney Davy Crockett theme) and good old musical theatre vocabulary.

                        In a vein not dissimilar to Butnrock’s approach to Take Flight (see above), director Joe Caralco’s production likewise evokes the vast panorama of mountains, caves, cliffs and crags with next to nothing—lighting, plus the orderly and disorderly arrangement of wooden chairs and ladders.

                        Ahhh, me. When everyone’s doing their homework, it takes so little else to make an audience happy…

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