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New Musicals And Plays Sing The Blues

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Kerry A. Dowling in a scene from the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Next to Normal, running through April 15th at the Boston Center for the Arts. (Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)
Kerry A. Dowling in a scene from the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Next to Normal, running through April 15th at the Boston Center for the Arts. (Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

Remember when the idea of a musical was to take you out of yourself, to leave you buoyant and joyful as you sashayed down the street, singing in the rain as you left the theater?

It’s not exactly news that musicals don’t sing that song anymore. Ever since Maria ended “West Side Story” weeping over Tony’s dead body in 1957 the trend has been toward using music to sing the blues rather than to celebrate the enduring pleasures of boy meets girl. (OK, Yul Brynner kicking the bucket in “The King and I” wasn’t a great moment in romantic love, but you get the point.)

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that several plays in Boston these days use music not to climb the heights but to confront the abyss –- from the seemingly hopeless despair of everything from severe mental illness to the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

'Next To Normal'

You wouldn’t know that anything was terribly amiss at the beginning of “Next to Normal,” (at the Boston Center for the Arts, through April 15) as the four members a suburban family get ready for another hectic day of work, school, and housewifery as they sing “Just Another Day.”

When it’s up to you to hold your house together
A house you built with patience and care
But you’re grappling with that grey and rainy weather
And you’re living on a latte and a prayer

Neither the caffeine nor the deity is responding this particular day and the family realizes she needs help when she starts making sandwich after sandwich – on the kitchen floor. Before we get too far into the story it should be noted that Tom Kitt’s music is excellent, an infectious rock-ish blend of driving rhythm in the opening scene and myriad other genres later. Some of the acid-lite songs, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, are tedious, but it’s an otherwise gripping score.

“Next to Normal” won a controversial Pulitzer Prize in 2010 (the jury didn’t nominate it) and it won three Tonys in New York, but Kitt and book writer-lyricist Brian Yorkey benefit from a first-rate SpeakEasy Stage Company here in Boston. Artistic director Paul Daigneault’s seamless staging of the material, with wrenching vocals by Kerry A. Dowling as Diana and Christopher Chew as her husband, Dan. Meanwhile, the musical mix by Nicholas James Connell and Aaron Mack, is as clean as you could want rock music to be.

Back to the story. The drug therapies for Diana’s bipolar disorder don’t help much and electro-convulsive therapy becomes the treatment of choice. Again, you wouldn’t think this is great material for musical treatment, but it all makes for a powerful emotional setting except for one thing. I thought the piece was more resonant before it’s revealed what drove Diana over the edge. The traumatic event in question seems more melodramatic than it needs to be, but there’s still enough metaphoric juice in the piece to make this a musical to savor.

Ameriville

“Ameriville” (at the Paramount Theatre through March 18) inhabits a tougher musical universe with its in-your-face mix of hip-hop, gospel, R&B and slam poetry. It’s also a tough mix politically with its fist-shaking at how the country reacted to Katrina.

The onstage quartet is called Universes, three men and a woman who sing and dance up a storm — so to speak — in lamenting lost lives, broken families and community striving as they portray mostly African-American, Latino and Vietnamese victims of Katrina.

There isn’t a weak moment in the 90-minute presentation, particularly musically, but that can be a problem as well as a virtue. The litany of problems listed can be pretty draining, leading more to compassion fatigue than compassion, particularly as Universes expands the story from what ails New Orleans than to what ails America.

Still, I’m glad ArtsEmerson brought the piece to Boston. "Ameriville" refers to Universe’s hope that the country sees that we’re all in this together, and not just members of ethnic, political and geographical enclaves. They make that case with a mixture of irreverent humor and gutsy singing and dancing. More power to them.

Losing Steam

Music has been a huge part of the American Repertory Theater mix since Diane Paulus took over and the latest Oberon offering is an Indie Rock extravaganza — “Futurity,” by the Lisps, a New York band, and playwright Molly Rice (through April 15.)

Don’t put on your dancing shoes for this one, though, as the ART’s second space leaves the dancing to the group and the talented back-up singer-soldiers made up of mostly second year ART Institute actors. The setting is the Civil War, with Union recruit Julian Munro (Lisp co-founder César Alvarez) dreaming of peace and enlisting scientist Ada Lovelace (the other original Lisper, Sammy Tunis) to help create a “steam brain” to end the war — much to the chagrin of her mother, none other than Lady Byron.

Lovelace, by the way, is not only a real person who is often cited as the first computer programmer, but also the subject of the next proposed book by Walter Isaacson.

Unfortunately, while the music is a solid blend of ballads and propulsive folk melodies a la Mumford and Sons, the story runs out of steam, so to speak, pretty quickly. The anti-war sentiments are admirable – the soldiers look ready to start an Occupy Gettysburg movement – but the constant hand-wringing over why we can’t all get along without war is pretty cliched. And as a lyricist, Alvarez needs a semester or two at the Stephen Sondheim-Leonard Cohen School for Wayward Songwriters.

There’s also a theme of putting too much trust in technology to end wars, but it seems more at odds with the pacifism of the piece than a supportive subtext to it. There’s a lot to like here – director Sarah Benson’s use of the space is excellent — but it feels like it needs much more development – particularly the back and forth between Munro and Lovelace, before it’s ready for prime time.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

No playwright is as musical as the late August Wilson even if he wasn’t a musician. The language of his plays not only bristles with musicality, but his characters are constantly singing and citing the blues as a way of confronting the world throughout the 10-play cycle tracing the history of African-American life, each play set in a different decade.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” set in Chicago during the ‘20s, completes the Huntington Theatre Company’s traversal of his work. It was Wilson’s second play, written in 1982, and probably his weakest. “Ma Rainey” has all the ingredients – a group of black men (the band) trading stories about life and love; a lamentation on white racism and black-on-black violence; and a strong signaling of the power that music plays in their world.

But the ingredients don’t mesh as mellifluously as in other Wilson plays. The stories are only occasionally interesting, the lamentation has little subtlety and the music doesn’t soar. It’s also not as good a production as other Huntington entries in the Wilson canon, particularly in the over-all lack of charismatic performances by the band members and Yvette Freeman in the title role.

Hats off, though, to the Huntington for completing the cycle, and being such a stalwart champion of Wilson’s from just about the beginning. Thanks to him, the whole theater world sings a bluesier tune.

This program aired on March 15, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.

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