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“Kansas City Choir Boy,” playing at American Repertory Theater’s Oberon, is short (under an hour) and bittersweet. It’s also rather slight, though not without a certain sad resonance and poignancy. It’s a one-act musical drama — a rock opera of sorts — almost entirely sung, with the primary voices being Todd Almond, who also wrote the music and lyrics, and his paramour, Athena, played by Courtney Love.
The two main characters are ably supported by a mobile string quartet and six “sirens” — lithe female actors who dance, swoop and sing, supporting the story and supplying added visual pop.
Chances are that the reason you’re curious about “Kansas City Choir Boy” is because of Love’s involvement. The former Hole singer, widow of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and evergreen source for the tabloids and the Internet gossip sites, is a tattered alt-rock heroine. She’s Ms. Trainwreck for the late-stage Baby Boom generation, Nancy Spungen with more guile and talent.
It’s a given in the rock world that Love has the potential to go off script — hell, off the rails — in real life or on stage at any given moment. I’ve seen her do so several times in concert. When she removed her shirt early on in “Kansas City” to reveal a black bra, you thought it might only be a matter of moments before she was topless, whether the script called for it or not.
That did not happen at Oberon on opening night. Love stayed within bounds and rather wrenchingly portrayed the late girlfriend of the unnamed singer-musician played by the younger Almond. We find out in the first few minutes that her character has been found dead in New York. It’s brightly splashed on the TV news, which Almond spies as he glances up from his computer toward a TV on stage. He’s been wrapped in his hermetically sealed headphone-and-computer world of beats and synths. Neighbors’ banging on the wall jars him out of that reverie.
So, if Athena is dead almost from the get-go, what is she doing in the play? She’s a ghost, of course, and one-time muse/girl of this Kansas City choir boy’s teenage dreams, all grown up, pretty and curvaceous, but dead.
In “Let’s Call This,” Almond sang, “I had a dream last night/You went away but you came back to me/You see, it’s all right.” Love: “I dream too/I came back here.” Almond: “Let’s call this our wedding day.” Love: “Why not?” Love donned a pink veil. At their wedding, the black leather-mini-skirt clad sirens-bridesmaids-Greek choir, trotted alongside like ponies. Was this a real marriage or his fantasy of it?
Almond is a high tenor. Love, well, she sounds more and more these days like late-period Marianne Faithfull — not a bad thing at all, but certainly the Voice of Ravaged. When a ruefully smiling Love shows for the first time on the rear balcony, with a set of bright lights pointing the way to her appearance, we know there’s going to be some regret and ruminations played out on stage. Actually, played out all over the room, as is generally the case at 150-capacity Oberon with its several levels and aisles being part of the theatrical space. There is the feeling of being enveloped by the action, rather than being mere observers.
“Kansas City Choir Boy,” directed by Kevin Newbury, is not exactly a clear-cut story. It’s more like Almond, the writer, is giving us snapshot-style flashbacks of a relationship. The singer is happy to be a Kansas City boy and Athena is yearning for the bright lights of the big city. There’s a courtship, romance, a breakup — and now this fantasy flashback. Not sure exactly why or how it all happened.
The narrative isn’t the strong suit in “Kansas City Choir Boy,” but a spell was cast. Part of that likely has to do with seeing Love in such an intimate setting and without her rock props and punk sneer. She can be, as a ghost anyway, rather beguiling.
A problem opening night was that Almond’s mic was faulty and his vocals were in and out. (“We had a technical issue,” explained A.R.T. publicist Kati Mitchell, post-show, “and we did not want to stop the show [to fix it].”) Love’s vocals were for the most part clear, albeit limited by her range. No surprise.
Their chemistry felt sincere, even if ultimately they have different dreams (and fates). They share recollections in songs sung by her, by him, and often in unison or a duet. The songs — a mix of electronic (sometimes haunting) pop, acoustic ballads, both occasionally augmented by the sweeping string section — work in the context of this play. But I can’t say I left with any of them sticking with me or any desire to get the soundtrack album, were there to be one. (Some of these songs were adapted from Almond’s 2014 album “Memorial Day.”)
The songs Almond sang could verge on overly sentimental (“I have loved only you!”). Love had a harder edge. Occasionally, spat-out staccato vocals, as she’s done with Hole and her solo rock act. Athena wasn’t a great leap from her rock persona, but she was less abrasive, more in control, more likable. She sang about how she decided to get a tattoo — “a bruise in the shape of your mouth,” about falling asleep with the TV on all night — “I hate that, waking up to some stupid show/And all I ever wanted was to see a movie with you.” Almond sang wistfully in “Fireworks” about Athena — apparently trapped by Kansas City life — “lying on the bed, your hand on your heart/Saying this is killing me … You looked like a child would.” Together they sing, “I think you misunderstand.”
The story, Almond says in production notes, was inspired by reality. He was stuck in a Kansas City hotel room and saw a story on the news about a local girl gone missing, which took him back to a moment a few years earlier when an actress he’d known, Sarah Fox, went missing. Her face popped up on New York 1 News. She had been murdered by a still unidentified stranger.
Your empathy for who these people were (or might have been) does kick in. At one point, from beyond the grave, Athena hands Almond’s character an acoustic guitar and then they’re singing together about going back in time “through my TV, even further ‘til we’re black and white.' ” This reprised a theme from earlier in the show. And when Almond sings in “Two of You,” “I did something I can’t explain … I told someone you were mine again,” the heartstrings got a little tug.
“Kansas City Choir Boy” will be at the Oberon through Oct. 10.
Jim Sullivan is a former Boston Globe arts and music staff writer who pens the arts-events website jimsullivanink.com and contributes to various publications, TV and radio outlets. He hosts the monthly music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk” on Xfinity On Demand.
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