Friday, July 24, 2015

Review: Stalled Storytelling

MTA. It’s three letters that terrify New Yorkers. The three most untrustworthy letters known to man is how New Yorkers get around. But it’s the subway that you’re bound to experience some sort of issue. So why set a musical in a subway car? Because it’s instant drama! In Oliver Houser’s Held Momentarily, a subway train stalls underground and the people on board are forced to come together when one is about to offer the miracle of life.
This is not a musical for the anxious. Held Momentarily is a claustrophobic musical about a subway that is held momentarily and the random acts of kindness that rarely occur. Houser’s story may be one of the most truthful tales because the reality of stalled cars is an all too real reality. But after that, the characters are a bit contrived and the plot is a bit thin. Held Momentarily is an ensemble driven musical but there are some characters who serve a purpose and others who are present for the sound. Once the train is stalled, we watch the forced conversation between culprits of a bad date, Greg and Mindy, birthday boy Stan who is on his way to see his cheating boyfriend, pregnant Sam, who like Stan, finds herself in an abusive relationship, Liam who suffers from med school PTSD, soulful Asherah, the resident homeless woman, and Cal who is present just to present a conflict. Interactions between strangers are quite interesting. Watching strangers and how they handle a scary situation is mesmerizing. But there was little substance in this specific situation. Houser’s book seemed stalled itseslf. With nowhere to truly go, the flashback device was the only way to get any character development. Houser’s score surprisingly has a dated tone to it. It has the sound of a early 90s musical. It’s clear that William Finn was an influential voice to Houser. The music had feeling and passion but at the end of the day, you leave the theater remembering very few of them, if any. Though you may remember “One Lurch” due to the lyric Lurch and not having anything to do with “The Addams Family” character.
photo by Sean Gregory
The ensemble was filled with some wonderful character actors. As Sam, Yael Rizowy not only has an incredible voice, she created a well-rounded character. She was genuine and relatable. Of all the characters, Rizowy is filled with such hope and beauty. One of the most surprising performances came from Ciaran Bowling as Liam. He was a bit young for the part but he broke out with his number “Wait a Minute”. It’s unfortunate that after his breakdown he was forced into the fetal position, perhaps a too on-point metaphor. As the homeless woman, India Carney had some opportunities to show why she was a top contender on “The Voice”. Carney put on a character but the style of music Houser asked her to belt didn’t seem to fit in her vocal wheelhouse. But it did make you want to hear her belt out “Summertime.” Oliver Houser as Cal looked sharp as the token asshole on the train. But Cal had the least to do and could easily be removed and still tell the same story.
With a very basic story to manage, director Harry Shifman focused on character development and finding ways to build them up. Since the storytelling used flashbacks, Shifman needed to keep things consistent. Sadly, his staging was anything but. For some of the flashback songs, the stage would be bare sans the characters in focus. Other times, everyone would get in on the action, the more interesting choice. Had this device been utilized in this manner, a stronger narrative would have been present. One of the saddest moments of the show came when the baby was born. Or should I say undisguised doll. It's moments like that that destroy believability. The story that Houser and Shifman wanted to tell was an intimate one. It’s unfortunate that they were stuck on the least intimate of the NYMF stages. The giant PTC stage swallowed the story as the only set was a row of chairs. The lighting looks by Elijah Schreiner allowed the flashbacks to have their own feel but with such a giant stage to deal with, finding a way to confine the subway car through light could have been of great aid.
Held Momentarily is just another musical about people getting stuck on the train. Only it’s the most realistic. In it’s current form, Held Momentarily is mediocre and will easily get lost in the shuffle. At such a short running time, building up the story and characters will be essential for any hope for the future.