Sunday, August 23, 2015

Review: A Tough Musical Sell

For a long time, musicals were that place where you escaped reality. The material was light and fluffy and allowed you to leave the theater with a smile on your face. Nowadays, tough subjects seem to be getting their place in musical theater. Such is the case in Under by writer Monica Hannush and composer Julian Drucker. The musical follows Serana, a Yale undergrad who goes through a manic state that lands her in the hospital. Told, for the most part, in dual narratives of time, Under is a tough pill to swallow. To be completely fair to the production, the performance I attended happened to be one where the projector, which was a key storytelling tool, did not work and thus losing an incredible amount of information. But with what was present, Under still has some issues to approach. The way Hannush tells her story begins in the present day at the hospital and then jumps backward in time and then forward. Act I follows this model. By Act II, Hannush abandons this. With inconsistency present, the importance of the past has suddenly lost, well, importance. Serena's present is far more interesting than what landed her there. And that's never been proven with the character of Billy. Partially due to the fact that Aaron McAleavey was heads above the rest of the cast as the strongest performer, but also because his story was the only interesting one. It's hard to care about Serena in this presentation. It's especially hard to care about potential bad boy lover Mark, the epitome of trust fund breakdown, or Noah, the spastic best friend. But Billy is raw and real, something that Under lacks. The structure of the music to book was very safe following the same formula. Book then song and then scene change. Variety is the spice of life and changing up the structure a bit from scene to scene will be useful. For the most part, Drucker's music lived in the slow to mid tempo world where nothing really stands out. His music has depth. There’s a great sound to it but it just lacks that musical moment that sells the show.
Aside from McAleavey, the ensemble was incredibly youthful in training. Their devotion to the work was ever present but there is room to grow. Michaela Murphy as Serena brings such conviction to the role. She had a lot of weight on her shoulders that she will eventually be able to grow into.
Director Alex Cadena sadly was forced to present an incomplete realization to the audience due to technical issues. Despite that, Cadena's biggest problem was staging. Even without slides revealing exact locations, the rules of the world were lost as characters bled over to the other side of the space. By keeping Jacob Rodriguez's set present the entire time, delineating space is essential. For whatever reason, Rodriguez and the Under team incorporated an ensemble. These kids played the other patients and doctors as well as college students. And there was no need for those college students, especially when they stole focus from the scenes. There are certain parts of a stage that eyes gravitate toward and unfortunately these background characters landed in them quite often. The projection issue was unfortunate and highlighted the long costume changes for Serena. With the structure of the piece, the character went from scrubs to dress every scene. And it was a long change. The dress certainly was a quirky addition to Serena's personality but costume designer Greg Dugdale could have assisted in the transitions with another design.
Under has work to do. And bringing in an experienced dramaturg will be of great aid. This production proves the youthfulness of the team and their ability to grow into strong artists.