Friday, August 21, 2015

Review: Storytelling Woes

It's safe to say that we've all dreamed in living in a fairy tale at least in our life. In Far From Canterbury, Chaucer's epic tales are used as inspiration to send young knight John on an epic journey. With book, lyrics, and music by Danny K. Bernstein, Far From Canterbury is a frothy musical that is best geared for the youth. Despite the target audience, Bernstein's story has some highs and lows. The highs include a pretty solid score and some great characters. The music lives in that typical contemporary theatrical world. There are some glorious songs that allow the capable company to sore to great heights. The excitement and adventure is high but there is room to improve. Far From Canterbury thrives on the high-stakes action but the intermission kills it. By eliminating some songs and those blatantly out of place modern references that don’t fit, becoming a one-act adventure will work to the musical’s advantage. And as a whole, Act 2 could use some real finessing. The biggest dramaturgical issue comes from the storytelling device. It is natural to have an ensemble tell the tale of John and his pals Marcus and Agnes. Whether it was Bernstein’s libretto or the direction by Juliana Kleist-Mendez, the storytelling device is messy. The core storytellers begin by telling a story, “Once Upon a Time” included. They then naturally melt into the scene where they engage in the excitement of a brand new Canterbury tale. And then the disconnect begins. Are the storytellers projecting what they’re reading or is John’s story just congruent with what the townspeople are reading. In other words, are the storytellers telling John’s story to us. Kleist-Mendez goes back and forth, occasionally having her ensemble read aloud to match the action and sometimes abandoning the device altogether. It’s a smart ploy to have the storytellers jump into the action, but they need to remain storytellers at all times. That means they have to have story in hand and never abandon the stage, at least one of them. Once clarity to cleaned up, Far From Canterbury will have a strong direction to go on.
The ensemble that brings these characters to life is quite dazzling. As John, Luke Hoback can be described by simply quoting the lyrics to “The Gummi Bears” theme song. He’s dashing and daring, courageous and caring. The role is perfectly suited for Hoback. To no fault of his own, Hoback occasionally gets out-shined by his best friend Marcus played like a quirky Disney Prince by T.J. Wagner. Wagner, and his hair, are brilliant sidekicks. Wagner has this charm that exudes ultimate charisma. Part of you wishes that Bernstein would write a prequel musical for Wagner about Marcus and his lady exploits. As Agnes, Hannah Richter is very reserved. And then she opens her mouth to belt her face off and you freeze in astonishment. Richter has booming sound that is largely unexpected and gladly accepted. Katie Drinkard as Delores has a voice made for someone double her age. It’s pure and mature and fortunately with the magic of theater, gets to play a role suited for her voice and not have to wait twenty years. For the most part the ensemble was good. Individually, they flourished in their big solo moments. But when they moved as one, they were inconsistent. Some offered that over-the-top musical theater persona while others were blatantly reserved. Being out of sync in an ensemble is not always a good thing.
With the storytelling vision being blurry, Kleist-Mendez and choreographer Ilana Gilovich needed to woe the audience. Sadly, with the space being so tight, the musical staging was derivative and boring. On a grander stage, there could have been big show-stopping numbers, but for where they were, it just didn’t work. The scenic elements by Riw Rakkulchon allowed variety to be had with the crates and poles and Kleist-Mendez used them to her advantage. The costumes by Ellen Pyne were one of the most polarizing aspects of the show. It’s clear that Far From Canterbury wants to evoke the modern spirit. There are modern elements within each costume. But the sweatshirts next to the more period items felt confusing. You cannot take away the ingenuity that was the armor-inspired sweatshirt that John wore but placing him next to Marcus and Agnes who could live in a period show on their own, it was disconnected.
There are some incredibly strong elements in Far From Canterbury that prove its great worth and potential. But the current vision needs a check-up. Bernstein has provided a wonderful and heroic escape with Far From Canterbury, and for that, he should be proud.