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May 3, 2014 Comments Off on Two New Musicals Don’t Completely Satisfy: “Shackleton” Has Promise But The “Room” Has A Bland View Views: 1203 #Theater and Stage, Arts & Entertainment, Stage

Two New Musicals Don’t Completely Satisfy: “Shackleton” Has Promise But The “Room” Has A Bland View

As I’ve stated MANY times before, creating theater is hard. Creating new works of theater is VERY hard. Creating new musical theater is difficult to the point of impossibility. Two new musical theater works on area stages attempt to overcome the impossible by debuting works “still in the creation” process. One has a lot of impressive qualities…the other, less so.

Valerie Vigoda both stars and wrote the song lyrics for ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME.  Photo by Jeff Carpenter Photography

Valerie Vigoda both stars and wrote the song lyrics for ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME.
Photo by Jeff Carpenter Photography

REVIEW: ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME. Book by Joe DiPietro. Music by Brendan Milburn. Lyrics by Valerie Vigoda. Produced by Shackleton Loves Me, LLC. Locally Produced by Balagan Theatre. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Musical Direction by Ryan O’Connell. Production Design by Alexander V. Nichols. With Valerie Vigoda and Wade McCollum. At Seattle Repertory Theatre now through May 3, 2013.

We’ll start with the more impressive show first, ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME,  a new musical brought to town by Balagan in partnership with both ACT and Seattle Rep and physically produced on the Leo K. stage at the Rep but originally created and work shopped elsewhere. “SHACKLETON” is the two hander about a very strange love affair between a musician who’s trying to balance a freelance scoring career with the challenges of raising her newborn alone after her deadbeat boyfriend has fled town to join a Journey cover band. The musician/mom is frazzled and sleepless and as she struggles to meet a deadline and launch her website, she gets lured into an odd time warp that results in appearances by some long dead heroes, including the British Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. The show explores this unique relationship (and the question of its reality) with the aid of the considerable onstage live instrumental skills of the lead character, and some dazzling rear video projections designed by Alexander V. Nichols. It’s a truly modern multi-media show and an example of the next generation of creating modern live theater.

SHACKLETON truly excels in a number of ways, Mr. Nichols’ impressive video design being first and foremost, along with his lighting/set design (assisted by Ahren Buhman, the technical director for many of Balagan’s shows.) The production LOOKS great..sharp and professionally executed and ready for Broadway or a big arena rock show. The audience’s huge ovation at the end of the show was much directed to this dazzling design work and other critics have hailed it as innovative. I was also impressed by the design, but not so convinced of its innovation…apparently many of my fellow critics don’t see many other kinds of theatrical/music events. The brilliant use of backing video has been used for many years in the spectacle world of pop music and cirque type shows…it ain’t new, you just haven’t seen it applied much to “straight” theater largely due to the time and expense of doing it correctly. I think that’s very likely to change in the future as more and more theaters jump on board the trend and as the time and cost factors drop to instigate such a design continue to fall.

It looks great, but…how does it SOUND? And, that answer is: mixed.

The actual sound design by Rob Witmer and Kevin Heard is terrific. As for the songs, by Brendan Milburn (music) and Valerie Vigoda (lyrics, who also plays the female role), they’re a mixed lot with some winning songs and some less winning ones but all performed with much passion by the two actors.

Ms Vigoda has the tougher of the two roles…she’s hampered by the fact her character is a bit of a cliche. Actually, a double cliche since she’s not only the “Unappreciated/Over Worked Artiste” but also saddled as “The Overworked Mom of a Newborn”. The character never seems very real or very relatable which is odd because the other principal character is Ernest Shackleton and that character is written to be a very broad, hearty, larger than life personality yet still seems more “real” than the present day, supposedly “normal and average” mom/musician. And, both Ms Vigoda’s character and performance come alive once “Shackleton” appears onstage.

The success of the character, “Shackleton” is largely due to both the script and the terrific and charismatic performance by Wade McCollum. Frankly, the show was very dull until character/actor made his appearance but once Mr. McCollum robustly steps on that stage (via refrigerator) the show comes alive due to his big, hearty and passionate performance. It’s the best male performance I’ve seen in a local musical in a long time and if this musical does make it to Broadway/Off Broadway with cast intact, this is the kind of performance that gets noticed.

To be blunt, the show has its charms but if you removed the amazing video projections and cast the wrong actor as Shackleton, you wouldn’t have much of a show. I admire Ms Vigoda’s work here, but the role isn’t fully developed. And, the part seems to be built solely around her admirable and rare skills as a trained musician…how many actors can be cast in this role once she’s not available to play it? It’s like the creators of SHACKLETON are determined to paint themselves into a hole.

One other critique. There are only two actors with Mr. McCollum playing multiple roles with Shackleton obviously being the principal one. As a result, the show feels far too under populated…and, there’s a definite lack of tension. They do have Mr. McCollum play the fiery explorer Ponce de Leon in a couple funny bits, to contrast the chilly, icy steel of Shackleton with the spicy passion of tropical explorer de Leon. Why not build up that part and have BOTH men vying for the female lead? It would add some much needed tension and drama to the plot. (Note: Mr. McCollum was also very funny in the de Leon role…having him switch back and forth would be tricky but add a lot to the theatricality of the show. OR, just hire another actor!)

I think ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME has a lot going for it but it’s not quite a finished product despite the superb design and the robustness of one of its characters. In my humble opinion,  it needs to spend a bit more time in the test kitchen before it’s ready for Broadway.

The company of the new musical, A Room with a View at The 5th Avenue Theatre through May 11, 2014. Credit Tracy Martin

The company of the new musical, A Room with a View at The 5th Avenue Theatre through May 11, 2014.
Credit Tracy Martin

REVIEW: A ROOM WITH A VIEW. Book by Marc Acito. Based on the novel by E.M. Forster. Music & Lyrics by Jeffrey Stock. Directed by David Armstrong. Music Direction by Ian Eisendrath. With Laura Griffith, Louis Hobson, Patti Cohenour, Allen Fitzpatrick, Richard Gray, Suzy Hunt, Matt Owen, Will Reynolds, Jadd Davis, and Jenny Shotwell. Now through May 11, 2o14 at The 5th Avenue Theatre.

Meanwhile, over at the 5th Avenue Theater there’s another one of their “Broadway Bound” musicals onstage, an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel,  A ROOM WITH A VIEW and probably best known to most audiences for its popular film adaptation by James Ivory that starred a very young Helena Bonham-Carter with Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, and a pre-superstar Daniel Day Lewis. It’s the story of a lovely young Edwardian woman named Lucy Honeychurch who visits Florence, Italy with her uptight middle aged cousin Charlotte and encounters a wide range of fellow Brits on holiday including an odd father/son couple. Upon returning to her pastoral English home to plan her wedding to the effete Cecil, Lucy once again encounters her new friends and begins to question the status quo of her pre-ordained, upper middle class life. Will she manage to find… A Room With a View?

Fans of the book and film know the answer and adore the story told with Forster’s wry wit and a genial smattering of both humor and romance and all against the dreamy backdrops of Florence and a bucolic English village. It’s a certain kind of “Masterpiece Theater/Merchant Ivory/Edwardian England Set Romance” porn beloved by many. But, does it translate to the stage AND as a musical?

No. Not really.

It’s a subtle, very English story about a young girl’s REPRESSED emotions and the entire point of the novel/film is that Lucy is able to EXPRESS her passions by marrying the man she’s supposed to marry…at the END of the story.The problem with musicals, is that song is a natural expression of emotions/desires/dreams/hopes etc. If Lucy is passionately breaking into song 5 minutes into the show, it sort of belabors the need to tell the story of her journey. We’ve already “shot our wad” so to speak and why hang out for another 2 & 1/2 hours to wrap up the obvious.

VIEW is also hampered by a libretto that insists on coarsening all the characters and making them grotesque and larger than they need to be. Though, to be fair, I think David Armstrong’s ham handed direction of the actors can also take some blame…and, since this show boasts a cavalcade of talented actors, many of whom are very capable of eating large chunks of scenery, the blame should be distributed evenly between book, direction and performers. But, the entire libretto is awkward with songs dully inserted with little regard for pacing and plot. All the wit and charm of the original material is lost and at times the show resembles a parody of a “bad musical” that insists on using inappropriate subject material for adaptation, like the film “Death Becomes Her” and its snarky musical version of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth”. At times,  this show will make you cringe with its inappropriateness.

As for the songs, they’re the usual mix of talk/singing narratives so blandly common now in musical theater. There’s only one song and number that has any life and that’s the infamous “swimming hole” scene that involves three male characters being caught skinny dipping by the stuffier members of the household. It’s a fun scene, though to be honest, it’s not that important to the plot, but since it involves naked male Brits, you sort of have to include it. It’s also a charmer in the musical, though far too over produced, and while the song, the ragtime infused “Splash” has a catchy refrain, it really feels more like a Disney song in an animated film. (Note to pervs: yes, the actors are really naked, but you really can’t see much due to the running around they do during the scene and the cavern like space of the 5th Avenue….) (Also: grow up.)

As for our lead actors, do we even need to discuss the fact that Lucy and George, our “young” lovers are supposed to be 18 and 24 or so, respectively, and are played by two lovely actors, (Laura Griffith and Louis Hobson, also respectively) who are both more than a decade too old for those roles? No? Good. Let’s move on.

The show is largely lovely to look at, though there are a couple outdoor scenes that largely consist of sad, looking, mopey vines that appear to have been purchased at a Michael’s. Deborah Trout’s Edwardian costumes are winsome but let’s be honest…it’s hard to go wrong with audience satisfaction when it comes to Edwardian clothes, even if they’re “wrong”. We’re automatically guaranteed to swoon at a crisp shirtwaist dress and men in a boater hat and a striped jacket. (And, to be clear, Ms Trout’s costumes ARE a highlight of this production.)

As noted above, Mr. Armstrong’s direction can be inconsistent. He creates some lovely tableaus, but they also reduce those scenes to bland static…like watching ye olde time melodrama at the county fair. And, some of the transitions are awkward…a problem also had with his OLIVER last winter. Also as noted, some of his more florid actors could have used a bit more discipline…scenery WAS chewed and while I’m usually  a big fan of  “The Big Performance” it is off putting in the subtle world of E.M. Forster. Much of the cast seemed to be under the impression they were involved in a Mack Sennett two reeler. All that was missing were pies and a wacky car chase involving Model Ts.

Unlike ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME, I can’t recommend a return trip to the Test Kitchen for A ROOM WITH A VIEW. I believe it isn’t suited for adaptation as a musical and this “Room” and its “View” needs to be shuttered.

If only because they ruined the ending by NOT returning to Florence…

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