Few evenings of theatre are diverse enough to prominently feature elements as disparate as Niagara Falls, a Greek guitar, existential painting, and a watermelon fight. But the first evening of shows in the Raw Impressions Music Theatre Marathon 2005 reminds you to expect the unexpected of those willing to subject themselves to New York musical theatre's own rigorous boot camp.
Judging by the shows constituting the Marathon's first week (it ends tomorrow; the next two entries are performed Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday the next two weeks), time needn't be a impediment to creating intriguing new work. Given that each writing team has less than two days to finish the first draft of a 10-minute musical and two days for rewrites, many of these pieces seem more polished than a lot of work that's arrived, in a supposedly finished state, on Broadway this season.
The shows for the first week have been directed by either Eamonn Farrell or Joe Locarro (who rehearse with the shows' actors for five days), have musical direction by Eric K. Johnston or Douglas Maxwell, and are all based on the theme "Afloat." With Raw Impressions shows, half the fun is in seeing how eight different writing teams interpret one theme differently; in this first week of shows, dark themes are particularly prevalent in most of the better works.
The first piece of the evening, "Niagara Falls" (book and lyrics by Adam B. Mathias, music by Brad Alexander), chronicles a young engaged woman (Colleen Hawks) visiting the Falls and learning from a strangely mystical tour guide (Matt Mager) that sometimes you really have to jump feet-first into life (or ride down in a barrel). Composer-lyricist Adam Gwon and librettist-lyricist Justin Warner explore the depths of human compassion, as it exists on the streets of New York, with their taut "Following," about a woman (Amy Silverman) who learns more than she anticipates about the apparently homeless man (Danny Rothman) who's trailing her.
More effective is "Always Open" (book and lyrics by Brett Nicholson, music by David H. Turner), a roundabout charmer about a woman (Lucy Sorenson) who learns some hard truths about love and what her soon-to-be-husband does when she's not around. Kara Corthron and Ron Melrose have written the thoroughly compelling surreal performance piece "as we are," which examines art's silent contributions to our lives; a man (Mager), who apparently has everything, realizes upon meeting two painters (Alison Cimmet and Colleen Hawks) who create vivid landscapes with paintless brushes that he really has nothing at all.
Other pieces are generally less successful: Saviana Stanescu and Joan Marie Delahunt collaborate on the vapid "Mermaidship," about two young Eastern-European women competing over the same man and singing songs (while dressed as mermaids) in a tacky club; Tajlei Levis and Nana Simopoulos's "Bouzouki Joe (My Father's Guitar)" is a resistible, feather-light comedy about two seafaring strangers bickering over an old Greek guitar and the treasure it supposedly contains; and Patricia Jang (book and lyrics) and Robert Terrell Bledsoe (music) provide an interesting but message-heavy meditation in "Westward," about a man (Kevin Hale) willing to give up everything to risk it all in Las Vegas.
The evening scores one out-of-the-ballpark hit in its final piece, Jimmy Bennett and Brian Lowdermilk's "AfLOAT." This dazzlingly wacky comedy set during a parade finds two newscasters (Aaron Berk and Jeff Hiller) intimately involved in a sororal tale of treachery and mistaken identity centered on the parade's regal Miss Watermelon (Cimmet). No actual fruit is employed, but at playlet's end, the stage seems as awash in juice, seeds, and blood as the theater does in laughter; 10 minutes in length or not, this show is a real winner.
With it, Lowdermilk further cements his reputation as one of New York's most important young musical theatre talents. His compositions here, while often Sondheimian in complexity, burst with his own unique comic voice, and the show he and Bennett have crafted (which includes intricately dramatized story-songs with titles like "I'm Not That Much Better Than You All" and "Put the Watermelon Down" that are every bit as funny as they sound) is one of the season's funniest musical comedies.
If nothing else in this installment of Raw Impressions has quite the shiny, accomplished gloss of "AfLOAT," there's enough solid, promising work throughout the evening to prove that musical theatre, especially away from the increasingly corporate-influenced Broadway, is in excellent - if not yet widely familiar - hands.
Raw Impressions Music Theatre Marathon 2005