Ok, so we all know I love me some STAGEright goodness, because they always bring either a new twist on a classic show like with their Gregory Award winning Into the Woods, or a new crazy show I’ve never heard of before like Are You There God? It’s me, Karen Carpenter. So whenever a new show is on the horizon at this fun and whimsical theatre company, I am excited to attend and see what they have in store for me this time. And for this go round, they brought Weird Romance.
This is story I’ve never heard of before, with book by Alan Brenner and Music by Alan Menken. Yes, you read that right, Alan friggin Menken!!!! And with the music at the hands of my favorite Music Director, Josh Zimmerman, I was seriously stoked to see what this show was all about, because if nothing else, I knew the band would be rockin’!
Ok, so as with the Romeo et Juliette review, for those of you planning to see this show and want to be surprised by every little element, well stop reading, buy a ticket and go see it. However, I feel I must divulge details for my readers who want to be in the know about the ups and downs of this very interesting show.
The program calls this show ‘Two one act musicals of speculative fiction’ and that is a fantastic description, although the show starts long before the lights go down and the music starts. Upon entry, you are told to select your seat, leave your coat and walk through the curtain to the Act 1 area where you are only to sit in certain spots around the stage, and after quickly doing the math, only about 10 people or so could sit, which means the rest of the audience were to just stand around and be part of the show. Ugh, I haaaaaaaate interactive theatre!
I do, I really hate it, and this production shows exactly why: I can’t fully immerse in the watching of the story when I’m being pushed around the acting space by the snarky characters. When special lights are showing right above you, blinding you and melting the non-actor makeup down my face, it distracts from seeing what is happening with this story. Which is sad, cuz it’s actually a really interesting story, which I’ll get to in a moment. Also, even those who sit, don’t get to stay in their seats, because actors force you to move to the other side of the room, demand that you ‘get out of the way’ every time you turn around, and often you’re in the dark so you end up stepping on your fellow audience members. It felt like STAGEright was trying to recreate their own version of ArtsWest’s American Idiot experience, but it didn’t work for me. Most of the audience seemed distracted and that’s not what you want at a show. Immersion is a privilege, not a right, and I didn’t get anything special from standing the entire time, often in the way of an actor, and my +1 felt the same way.
That being said, when I wasn’t being distracted by getting out of the way of an actor entering or exiting, I saw some absolutely amazing performances. Let’s start with my favorite: Noah Duffy! This bitch, and by bitch I mean the character he played in Act I titled The Girl Who Was Plugged In. The character was called Zanth, and holy motherfucking hell! And apologies for the vulgarity, but there are no other words for how absolutely brilliantly this character was played. Over the top, working a pair of platform boots and sparkled thong codpiece like he wears one every damn day blew my mind! Completely in every single moment, I was not ready for this level of acting, but Mr. Duffy is a genius! His voice was on point, his dancing was epic (the high kicks on this boy!), and his acting was flawless. Yes people, I said flawless! His performance of Zanth alone should have you running to Brown Paper Tickets to purchase your seats for this experience. He was almost good enough to make me forget about how irritated I was at having to stand for 90mins for the first act, that’s how unbelievably good he was!
And then Act 2 rolls around titled Her Pilgrim Soul where he switches gears to be Dan, a computer scientist/assistant to a doctor where he strips down to a modest button down shirt and pants, the makeup and glitter gone, and transitions seamlessly into the happy, curious, amazing character of Dan. A chameleon in our midst, showing even larger range of voice and acting than I was ready for, so yeah, I’m an instant fan of this amazing artist. Thank you, Mr. Duffy for the performances you gave in this show. You’re absolutely phenomenal. Bravo!
The perfect chameleon counterpart to Mr. Duffy’s performance was one of my all time favs doing what she does best which is 100% commit to whatever outrageous character anyone throws at her and kills it every time! I’m talking of course about the incomparable, brilliant, fucking amazing Olivia Lee! You’ll remember my raving about her in shows like Hair, Into the Woods, and Are You There, God? It’s me, Karen Carpenter. She is so good, people, I can’t even with how good she is! In Act I, draped in crimson goddess Gaga-esque fabrics, she’s all sparkles and lashes, and belting voice, and embodying some epic diva known as Shannara. And I adored her as always! She steals my focus whenever she is on stage with that ridiculously amazing voice and stage presence of hers, and the chemistry between Ms. Lee and Mr. Duffy was off the effing charts! Boom! Go see them in this show! Just don’t wear your heels, cuz you won’t wear them as well as Ms. Lee, mmmmkay!?!?!?
Now, on to Act 2 where, just like Mr. Duffy, Ms. Lee strips out of her fabulous getup down to a dowdy, make-up less (yes, you read that right! No make up on her gorgeous face!) snack-loving Rebecca, where I finally got my fix of Ms. Lee’s brilliant comedic timing. I’ve said before, Ms. Lee must be the love child of Cher and Cherie Oteri, because damn can this chick crack me up! And why? Because she’s so committed to her characters. A true actor, who fully develops a character and bravely brings her out for the audience to enjoy. As much as I adored Shannara, Rebecca is what I left thinking about because Ms. Lee is superb in this role. Even when singing with a mouth full of cookies, the performance took my breath away and brought me to happy tears because I was laughing so hard. Thank you, Ms. Lee for you consummate professionalism and commitment to the art of acting. J’adore you! Brava, Diva!
Other actors in the show had some decent elements. Let’s talk about the women first. I enjoyed Linnea Ingalls in both acts, but more for her acting than anything else. She really is a stellar actress, was absolutely delightful in Act 2, especially, but her voice was just so-so for me throughout the show. I also really enjoyed Tiffany Chancey in both acts both vocally and acting wise. And Jasmine Joshua and Varsha Raghavan play the same character, well sort of (I’ll get to that in a moment), and together they really were one perfect performer. Ms. Joshua’s acting chops were outstanding, but her voice wasn’t quite on pitch a lot of the time, whereas Ms. Raghavan had a lovely voice, but her acting felt very one note through both roles from Act 1 to Act 2. They weren’t bad notes, mind you, but would like to have seen a bit more range from her given the characters she was playing.
As for the men in the ensemble, Samuel Jarius Pettit gave a sweet performance in Act 1, and did well in the very minor part he had in Act 2. Andrew Murray has a nice voice, but lacked chemistry with Ms. Raghavan in Act 1, as he played Ms. Raghavan’s love interest. I didn’t buy that relationship at all. However, in Act 2, he’s quite delicious as a seductive lounge singer splitting his attention between an angel played by Ms. Joshua and the devis played by Ms. Raghavan. The strength of his voice came through in this act, and I finally saw a fully developed character! The sultry lounge singer definitely sits better on his abilities than the sweet boss’s son fawning after a pop star (I know you’re prob confused, just hang with me).
And along with the ups also come a few downs. Dan Posluns seriously disappointed in Act 1 with a voice rarely on pitch, and a very one-dimensional, dry acting performance. However, in Act 2, his jewish business man character was rather well done and likable, so no idea why there was such an inconsistency in performance from one act to the other.
And finally, Matthew Lang, who you’ll remember I reviewed in Sweeney Todd had the same problems in this show that he’s had in every other show I’ve seen him in, only this one was worse as in addition to another one-dimensional performance where I saw him trying so hard to ‘play’ the various roles he was cast in, he stumbled over line after line, and I’m not sure if it was nerves or lack of knowing his lines, but man he couldn’t get a sentence out smoothly to save his life. His voice was weak throughout the entire show, more noticeable in Act 1 than Act 2. Mr. Lang has more of a voice for classical musicals, so rock opera style just doesn’t sound good when he sings it. And for all the honest, amazing performances going on around him from Mr. Duffy and Ms. Ingalls, both of whom gave him buckets of amazing stuff to work with, the light shone very brightly on how weak and flat Mr. Lang’s performance was as he awkwardly stumbles through this show. Once again, I didn’t see one real moment from him, and he left me very disappointed.
Now, what do all these performances combine to make? Well, Act 1 tells the tale of a world where advertising is against the law, and a creepy business man and sweet scientist have created a way for one average person to inhabit the robotic body of a superstar. This is tested on homeless people, and this story focuses on a homeless woman named P. Burke who allows the sweet scientist to send her mind, heart and soul to transport into a stunning beauty named Delphi where she can have the world at her feet. The goal is these robots wear a body lift bracelet that will entice consumers to want one and create profit for the company without actually advertising. The boss’s son falls in love with the robot Delphi, and she falls in love back and tells him the truth and the entire secret robot embodiment/Avatar business is brought to a very ugly head. For all the standing around of the audience, and all the running around of the cast, I felt that director Brendan Mack, assisted by Josh Moore pulled off an interesting concept, creative design and fantastic casting. The costumes by Cherelle Ashby and Jonelle Cornwell were amazing! The choreography left me a bit bored, but the dancing was minimal, so I wasn’t so worried about it.
Act 2 switches gears and tells the story of Kevin, a doctor working with his assistant Dan on virtual reality where suddenly a baby they didn’t create appears on the screen, and this baby grows into a young girl named Nola who can see and interact with Kevin and Dan. She’s virtual, but can see, talk, and eventually touch them. She ages by the hour and we follow Nola’s memories from young girl to teenager to young collegiate to wife and mother, to eventually learn she dies in a very painful childbirth. As she grows, Kevin bonds on a deeper and deeper level with her, so much so that he begins neglecting his wife, Carol, in order to spend more time with Nola. There’s a twist in this story where it turns our that Kevin in the reincarnated husband of Nola, and she’s come back from the afterlife to help him see that he needs to live his life more fully. He needs to have children, cherish Carol, and be happy. It’s a very lovely, touching story, and man, Ms. Ingalls is amazing as Nola.
My main complaint about this act is that randomly, suddenly, when Nola is a collegiate girl, Kevin is able to touch her. He’s able to physically touch a hologram, and I don’t understand this choice. I asked director Brendan Mack if that was part of the script, and he said no, it was a choice they made to allow the actors to fully interact. Personally, it bugged me, because I think it would have been so much more impactful if, as the connection between Kevin and Nola deepens, the fact that they can’t touch would have increased the tension and raised the stakes. And, given how good Ms. Ingalls was at depicting a few of her memories, if Mr. Lang wasn’t able to touch her, his strange reactions to her wouldn’t have muddied up the scene so much because he wouldn’t have been allowed to infiltrate her hauntingly beautiful moments with his mediocrity.
Other than that element though, this act was wonderful. The story is heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time. It had the feel of Menken, with a Disney-esque happy ending after a few obstacles, and a few toe tapping songs that make you smile.
Overall, this was a really fun night of theatre, and I highly encourage you all to go see for yourself if you enjoy a bit of interactive theatre and don’t mind sort of being part of the show, because the stories are really interesting and the music is really good.
I give this a solid applause with a note to self to bust out my Ben Nye makeup for any future STAGEright performances just in case I find myself part of the show!
Weird Romance plays through Feb 20 at the Hugo House on Capital Hill. Tickets and showtimes can be found on STAGEright’s website.
Ciao for now,