Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Speaking of new work…

It’s a truism that one of the great things about theater is that it is largely created right in front of you. Sure, there are costumes and sets and effects and such but the immediacy of all of the elements interacting in real time – no post-production to clean up the rough spots – is a special kind of magic.

That magic moves to a higher level when those interactions are in development, adding the spontaneity of something like improv to the stage alchemy. That’s what you find at an event like the staging of “All Fall Down” by TheatreLAB at the Shop. I took in the performance of this in-development musical last night and had a great time (there is one more showing tonight).

The musical with music and lyrics by Selda Sahin and book by Greg Turner concerns freshman college student, Ben (played by Matt Shofner), who is by most accounts a perfectly normal teen struggling with the transition into adulthood. But when he inexplicably jumps (falls?) from a 6th-story window (and survives), his emotionally-repressed family is thrown into a tizzy with no roadmap for navigating the aftermath.

I had many questions about show itself, about the choices made with the story and the directions of the characters. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the show’s talk-back to ask them. I think the basic idea of the show is intriguing but the trajectory of the story didn’t quite work for me. It reminded me of a show called “Normal” that Stage 1 did several years ago now that was about a family dealing with an anorexic teen. In my view, three things are needed in a show like this: Insight, anguish, and catharsis. In its current form, I don’t know that the show fully delivers on any of these. (I’m not meaning to be intentionally vague or overly critical but also don’t know how much critical feedback is appropriate for a show at this stage of development.)

But even in a still-rough form, I think the show offers some really nice songs and the production delivers some excellent performances. I was particularly impressed that Ms. Sahin successfully channels the emotions of some pretty divergent characters, particularly the older folks. I was on the verge of devolving into a puddle of tears during the “We Have a Boy” song, not helped at all by the fact that I was seeing the show with my youngest son. Ben’s confusion and longing are captured in several songs and the “There is no drama in my family” theme was a nice tune and very effective framing device.

Russell Rowland and Kim Jones Clark do great work in somewhat thankless roles as Ben’s parents, an Eisenhower era-type dad and a Donna Reed-like mom who aren’t equipped for emotionally processing what’s going on. They were both more entertaining – if sometimes too broad – as Ben’s college roommate and his girlfriend. Robyn O’Neill had a true crowd-pleasing role as Ben’s gramma, a little curmudgeonly but the most emotionally frank (and therefore, emotionally adept) member of the family. Her scene in the car with Ben near the show’s end was my favorite, funny and clear and honest.

As far as Shofner, well, he’s simply delightful and about a dozen other laudatory adjectives. His voice is unwavering strong and lovely and his performance was compelling and engaging. Part of the fun of the night was watching him perform the role but also at times discover the role while in the midst of it. With his slight frame, big eyes and expressive face, Shofner is one of those actors who compel you to watch him when he’s on stage. It really was a joy to see him work.

With “All Fall Down,” director Deejay Gray has pulled together something intriguing and entertaining in a surprisingly short amount of time. There was a solid crowd at the Shop last night and I’m sure the folks there would love a full house tonight. If you are a theater lover, there are few things as exciting as seeing new work emerge. Head down to Manchester tonight and you can watch this genesis continue.

Which is all a nice lead-in to another little RTCC award tidbit: for this year’s awards (happening exactly 2 months from today!), the Critics Circle has revived the “Best Home-Grown Work” category. With new shows ranging from big-budget, high-profile extravaganzas like “Scorched Earth” to little funky fun shows like “Brew” by Stage B, how could we not recognize all the exciting developments going on in town?

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