Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Review: Sex, Drugs, and Death

Grieving is never easy. We all grieve in our own way. Family and friends are usually a safe place to turn to help through the dark time. Unless you’re a twentysomething and drugs and sex are truly your only friends. Such is the case in Riley Thomas’ Wearing Black.
After the death of his twin brother, Evan falls deep into a dark pit of despair and even those closest to him can’t help him out. Wearing Black is, at the root, a play about grieving. There is substance to it inside. But what Thomas offers is a musical so fantastical that it’s too hard to believe. Wearing Black follows the theory of “when it rains, it pours.” After laying his brother to rest, Evan watches his one true love, and former flame of his brother, continue to use after it resulted in his brothers death. To cope and get his aggression out, they end up having sex in a hazy stupor. Evan’s father, a respect demander, is a closed-minded drunk that blames the problems of the world on everyone but himself, causing an already large riff between father and son to become bigger than the Rocky Mountains. And then there is the childhood friend who is willing to destroy an apparent “loveless” relationship just to have that one moment of intimacy with Evan. With four out of five characters being so unsympathetic and irresponsible, Wearing Black is a difficult piece to engage with. By the time there are any shreds of redemption for these characters, it’s too late. The dialogue Thomas uses is tired and monotonous. Thomas introduces many plot points that either go unresolved or completely passed over without another mention. With an atrocious book holding back the rock infused score, Wearing Black plays the tonality of a bleak love child of Next to Normal and Rent. The music Thomas provides is good. There is promise in the score.
As Evan, Devin Ilaw played one solitary action throughout. Anger. Evan may have touched upon the stages of grief throughout the musical, but he was angry at every step. Ilaw’s voice is gritty, something that worked to his and Thomas’ advantage. But at times the grit was replaced by screaming. Though he had difficulty staying in key, BJ Gruber as Nate was a loveable bumbling buddy. As the only character that you could possibly cheer for, you felt sympathetic toward him after continually being, pardon the language, shit on. Gruber has potential in him. When things were in a “happier” place, Gruber and Hayley Anna Norris’ Alyssa had one of the standout moments with “I’ll Learn From You.” And then Alyssa, out of nowhere, had instant love for Evan and she become a hated character. Norris has a beautiful voice. It was sweet and matched what the character was supposed to be. But after watching Alyssa be the catalyst for what she knows is just a one-night stand, Norris was lost. As Kristin, Erin Maya, like Ilaw, was stuck in the rut of anger and inebriation. While she played both well, it was boring. Sadly, it was not a shock to see her overdose. Perhaps it spared Maya from being a broken record if the character hadn’t passed. Mark Coffin as drunk dad had what may be the hardest role in the entire show. From his first moment on stage, you hated him. And as much as you wanted to believe he had changed at the end, it was not genuine.
Director Jeremy Scott Lapp had a tremendous task in finding something to win the audience over. Lapp highlighted Thomas’ score. And in doing so, there was much action within the music. In musical theater, unless a scene slams in following a song, it is inevitable that the audience will clap. And there is nothing more awkward than applause for a song where the song ends with sex. While it could have been completely out of Lapp’s control due to the material he had to work with, the audience was never more uncomfortable. And thus, was lost from that moment on. Lapp’s musical staging was repetitive due to David Goldstein’s set. The platform idea provided levels but it caused issues toward the wings.
Wearing Black is an abundance of ideas loosely strung together that when combined, causes a problematic musical. While there may be some wonderful songs in the production, finding an audience willing to endure this story will be essential. That is if things remain the same.