Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Powerhouse Theatre at Vassar: Whisper House / The Nightingale / Nero / F2M

Over the past few summers, I've seen four Powerhouse Theatre shows at Vassar College as part of their annual collaboration with New York Stage and Film. Nero, Whisper House, and The Nightingale were concert readings of musicals by Duncan Sheik (famous for that incessantly played kind-of-twee song Barely Breathing and, of course, for Spring Awakening). F2M was a fully staged play by Patricia Wettig (famous as an actress in Thirtysomething and in Brothers & Sisters).

I think Wettig's play F2M has legs, but I wish the explanatory bits had been less cliched, handled better than as in an after-school special (both in the actual explanations and how they were clunkily folded into the surrounding dialogue). I know many theater audiences know nothing about transgender issues, but the play spends so much time saying what being transgender is and isn't that it shortchanges the really interesting questions the play raises about its impacts on a college-age transgender person and those who love the person. I've read and watched a lot about this (which is how I know how cliched the dialogue is), and the play still managed to raise at least one issue that I had never considered. Serious kudos for that, but it happened late in the play and was barely explored. Keira Keeley's portrayal was excellent, restrained, and very real, though.

For the concert readings, the audience is reminded that in the Internet Era, there are few safe spaces for artists to hone their craft without widely circulated criticism and to please honor that by not filming the show or talking about it with your invisible friends. [See my newer post for an update on this policy.]* So I won't do real reviews for these shows, but I do want to tell you a bit about my experience so far and encourage you to take the beautiful drive or MetroNorth train ride up to Poughkeepsie to check it out for yourself sometime. (Please click MORE at the bottom to read about Nero and The Nightingale.)

Whisper House
Score by Duncan Sheik, book and co-lyrics by Kyle Jarrow. Copied from the Old Globe Theatre's website (the show got a fully staged run there after the Powerhouse workshop):
It’s 1942--at the height of World War II--and Christopher, an imaginative young boy, is sent to live with an aunt he’s never met: Lilly, a reclusive woman who serves as the keeper of a remote lighthouse. Not yet comfortable in his surroundings, Christopher begins to hear strange music no one else can hear seeping through the walls. It doesn’t take long for him to suspect the lighthouse may be haunted, and these ghosts tell him that Yasujiro, a Japanese worker that Lilly has employed, should not be trusted. Is Christopher’s imagination getting the best of him? Or are these ghosts warning Christopher about the very real dangers that lie ahead?
I love this show and hope it comes to New York. It's a simple but touching story, and I think it's brilliant that--like in Spring Awakening--the songs take place outside the narrative, this time with the ghosts commenting on the action but not really taking part in it. Please go listen to the concept album Sheik recorded with the golden-voiced Holly Brook. I'm particularly fond of Better to Be Dead, And Now We Sing, and especially The Tale of Solomon Snell. I listened to the recording on repeat for weeks when I got it and am still completely in love with it.

Here's a video for the Whisper House song Earthbound Starlight:

Chamber musical by Spring Awakening's team of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. Paraphrased from
A musical exploration of the Roman emperor with a flair for the theatrical. With Taboo's Jeffrey Carlson as Nero, Spring Awakening/Glee star Lea Michele as his mute wife and step-sister Octavia, Tony winner/Glee guest star Idina Menzel as his lover Poppea, and Michael Arden as Nero's step-brother Britannicus.
I was fairly bored. I didn't particularly like any of the songs. I wasn't as thrilled as I thought I'd be to see Menzel live, and hearing Michele sing again but with such bland fare was disappointing. I wasn't familiar with Arden, though, and I loved him. But I really, really, really don't see this show going anywhere.

The Nightingale
This musical by Sheik and Sater is described on as:
A musical rendering of Hans Christian Andersen's classic tale of a young emperor who finds his heart in the song of a small grey bird--and in the soul of a common servant girl--far beyond the walls of the Forbidden City.
I found this show, directed by Moisés Kaufman, to be racist and the songs to be rip-offs either of Spring Awakening or Disney tunes. The songs were fluffy, but many of the jokes were crude (and not in a clever, charming way like in Avenue Q). The cast was a powerhouse (sorry) of amazing voices, 10/12ths of whom I had seen on stage before (3 of them in Spring Awakening): Michael Esper and Michael Cerveris (as the young and old Emperor and so good together, both acting and singing), Harriet Harris (channeling Ursula the Sea Witch, which I think is mostly the song's fault), Uzo Aduba (great here and in Prometheus Bound), Celina Carvajal, Blake Daniel and Michael Mastro (as eunuchs who were written to be the most stereotypically gay they could get without throwing in leather or a wig), Andrew Durand (with a wandering accent), Kimiko Glenn, Kylie Liya Goldstein, Arielle Jacobs (WOW), and Matt McGrath. I could listen to this group sing for days, just not with this material. Like with Nero, I don't see The Nightingale going anywhere, though this one would certainly have wider appeal.

And since you know I can't resist any excuse for a photo of my favorite American Idiot and Intelligent Homosexual ...:

Michael Cerveris and Michael Esper
Photo by Vassar & New York Stage and Film's Powerhouse Theater / Buck Lewis

* The New York Times is hosting an interesting discussion of this and other preshow announcements.

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