If only avoiding death were as easy as slaying a dragon, the world would be a happier (if considerably more populated) place. Everyone learns eventually that death is as unavoidable as it is undesirable, usually when a parent dies. That might not make the suffering any easier, but it's the first step toward inner eternal peace.
Parents wishing to impress this lesson on their children in as painless and melodic a way as possible are hereby advised that Tim Nevits and Gihieh Lee's new musical Tock Tick, which Prospect Theater Company is presenting at the West End Theatre, might be a tremendous help. Though billed as "a new musical fantasy," it's a highly watchable fairy tale with a sobering moral about making the most of what little time we have.
Told as it is, with Technicolorful characters, and unadorned, unabashed story-theatre aesthetics, itís ideal for children to learn one of lifeís hardest truths in a harmless way. But until the latter half of the second act, when its parade of storybook stereotypes, puppet shows, and celestial gondoliers give way to a serious look at the greater meaning of death and loss, Tock Tick doesn't offer much to adults.
There's a real sweetness in the tale of the 12-year-old Chelsea (Jennifer Blood), who embarks on a magical quest to save her dying mother (Maria Couch) from a menacing dragon that wants to snatch her away, but it gets so tied up in cutesy dramatic devices and book bloat that it's frequently hard to recognize. The show's middle half hour (not counting the intermission) especially, in which Chelsea assembles her troop of gondoliers to battle the dragon and learns the meaning of love from the youngest of them, is precious to the point of cloying.
Director Jackson Gay has approached the production as if it were a Theatreworks USA offering (which, indeed, it closely resembles), without shaping and refining the show to that level of well-oiled efficiency. (Aleksandra Maslik's sets and Kate Cusack's costumes likewise whimsically recall Theatreworks's imagination-oriented design philosophy.) Gay's clever staging of some difficult scenes (including an airplane ride, descent into a black hole, and a trek through the clock at the center of the universe) can't substitute for all the moments that might be alternately plodding and overexcitable, but are always overstuffed.
These convey a general sense of Nevits and Lee trying to do too much, as if they hoped putting everything conceivable into the show would guarantee something would appeal to everyone. But with compositions that, like the book, are all over the place, consistency never has a chance. Inspiring anthems, mock-German tavern songs, English music hall specialties, soaring ballads, Italian art songs, and more uneasily coexist in a score that never lacks for beauty or invention, yet always leaves you wanting less.
The performances are in keeping with this kind of theatrical grab bag: David Foley, Jr. is a silly German doctor with an even sillier method of sure-fire dragon-dispatching; Robby Sharpe is Chelsea's ever-smiling aviator uncle; David Abeles deftly moves from a tag-along British husband to a weepy Italian boatman; and Mark Mozingo captures some appealing innocence as Chelsea's youthful admirer. Unsurprisingly, it's Blood (quite believable as a 12-year-old) and Couch who do the most heartfelt work, creating a mother and daughter who need and love each other in ways that ring resoundingly true and singing very attractively.
But the nicest, most natural performance is courtesy of Melissa Hart. As the wise clocksmith charged with convincing Chelsea of the necessity of death, her explanation of the natural order of things is so still and so straightforward it doesn't at first seem to belong in a show that's all action, music, and noise.
There is, however, probably no better way of convincing the target audience that death is no laughing matter. Plus, for the first time all evening, both children and adults can share a quiet, beautiful moment on the very same level. Tock Tick needs more scenes and performances like this to convince parents that watching the stage might just beat staring at their watches.
Photo: Robby Sharpe and Jennifer Blood. Photo by Carol Rosegg.