Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Review: When Words Fail

There's something about love in musicals that draws audiences. It's a universal theme. But the problem is discovering a new way to tell the tale as old as time. Whether it be the plot or the style, something needs to set it apart from the rest. In Eric B. Sirota's severely dated "new" musical Your Name on My Lips, the rocky and inconsistent love between Sam and Suzanna is displayed in a monotonously melodic fashion.
Set in the 70's, twelve year-old Suzanna falls for artist Sam after he paints a picture of her. We then watch as the relationship blossoms and wilts with stereotypical obstacles along the way. When Suzanna goes off to college and Sam is left to pursue his dreams at home, the lovers discover that new people, and highs, exist and tempt them away from one another. Whether these two are destined to be soul mate is up for debate as the longevity of their bond is rigorously put into question. With a generically thin plot, Your Name on My Lips' biggest obstacle is the words by Sirota. Whether in dialogue or lyric, the material is weak and unintentionally hilarious. Paired with direction that is the equivalent of bad musical theater, every word was either hokey or farcically over dramatic. The beginning started off wobbly but the moment that Sam nonchalantly revealed that a drunk driver killed his parents, everything avalanched from there. With matter of fact declarations and quizzical line readings, the characters lived in a unrealistic world that can only exist in musical theater. Aside from a plethora of musical material that can be eliminated, it was difficult to care about the pair together or individually. It was natural for Suzanna to explore new boys but she was beyond flippant in her choices and reasoning. And for the three suitors to be ok with her indecision was strange. With the amount of times Suzanna flips back and forth between guys, it was hard to track the arc of the primary relationship. With a no stakes love at the center of the story, Sirota layered in obstacles that came off as bad after school special morals. From pot to the oddly timed parental divorce, the way Sirota presented these issues were cringe-worthy. To complicate the simple world, Sirota implemented a very specific device of Dream Suzanna. But the way it's presented made very little sense. Having a different actress serve as Dream Suzanna devalued the purpose. In this version, having Sam project a new person proves his forced love for Suzanna. A new vision means he has moved on from the past. With Suzanna finding love with new men and Sam pinning for a deviated idea of Suzanna, the story becomes obsolete and could have been resolved in just a few short scenes. Putting love and sex to music is inevitably hokey. Singing about one’s first time may be romantic at heart but through song, it garners giggles. For the most part, Sirota’s score was melodic but flat lined. There was rarely ever a change, but when it did, it did not feel a part of this world. Joe, who was set up to be a campus rock star of sorts, sang the occasional mid to uptempo number that broke from the monotony. While “Magnetic Moment” and “Gravity” may have informed the spirit of love, they did not inform or further the plot. The operatic “Act I Finale” was such a departure that the style was so heightened, the drama could only live in the opera form. While this song could be reworked, the song that seemed to be in the completely wrong show was “No Girl Is Worth It” which took a vaudevillian approach in song and dance. The song comes when Sam is put in jail after taking the fall for possessing marijuana. The only way this number could be conceivable is if Sam was projecting the whole thing through a pot-induced high.
photo by Michael Bonasio
Sam and Suzanna’s love is the focal plot of the story. Much attention is paid to the duo. Alec Lee and Rebbekah Alson respectively had an incredible task of carrying the weight of the show and their love on their shoulders. Lee and Alson did almost all they could with the material they were given. Together, Lee and Alson vocally didn’t quite blend well but individually they found their moments. From an acting standpoint, Lee’s Sam was perpetually dreary while Alson’s Suzanna was perpetually cheery. There was little change in their arcs, no matter who they were with. Casting actors to play an assortment of ages in a piece like this can be a risk. Having two twenty-somethings not only play close to their age but also adults plays into the humorous nature of the musical world. Joshua Dobkins and Maggie Spicer struggled with the believability factor as Father and Mother but when they broke out into their trusty sidekick parts, that’s when they shined. Dobkins as Jack was delightfully goofy, bringing animation to his scenes with Sam. Spicer as roommate Beth made some of the strongest choices of all the company, lighting up the score with “A Love Like That.” Jody Hinkley played an assortment of roles in Suzanna’s life including hometown banker boy George and college campus hunk Joe but if it weren’t for costume changes, you would have thought they were the same exact person.
Director Katharine Pettit had to fight against the language in order to make this show take flight. And it seemed Pettit had no choice but to have her company go big and overdramatic. With dialogue so trite and plot so banal, there was little Pettit could do but ask her company to commit to their choices. And they did. The scenic design by Tina Pfefferkorn established the basic outlines of the worlds of the musical. From an art studio to a dorm room, Pfefferkorn kept it simple. Pettit, for the most part, established the boundaries well, keeping the scenes relegated to their places. Thankfully this worked with the giant, though sound-sucking, stage. The art studio portion of the stage featured work by Cara London. New pieces appeared on stage scene after scene to aid in the progression of time. Though many of the characters found themselves in an assortment of costumes, costume designer Derek Robertson kept Sam in one singular, painted number. With everyone else changing around him, it stuck out like a sore thumb.
There’s a line in the show about keeping up with the trends. It’s a sad but accurate truth. And Your Name On My Lips would benefit from practicing what it preached. As is stands now, You Name On My Lips plays like a housewife’s guilty pleasure soap opera. Sirota could benefit by bringing on a script doctor, especially with the libretto. But when it comes down to it, you have to ask “why this story?” Do we really care about the longevity of this relationship? The sad answer, is probably not.