Religion's a hot topic for Off-Broadway musicals at the moment, with recent entries like bare and Love According to Luc exploring the issue of homosexuality and its relationship to religion. Jeffrey Todd Fernandez's new musical, Another Life?, touches on that subject only in passing, spinning instead a mystical tale exploring the effects of religion - and religious intolerance - on a modern society.
This show, which is playing at Theatre Tree through July 11, is certainly ambitious - there are over two dozen songs, a twelve-person cast, a three-person band (led by Ehud Asherie), and some exquisite costumes (by Joseph Alata). The work of Fernandez and director/choreographer David Robertson often makes this show feel larger than it actually is.
While a great many musicals could do well to adopt this attitude, Another Life? is not particularly successful as the edgy musical drama it aspires to be. Rather, it's something of a post-modern fable, Once On This Island meets West Side Story meets Les Miserables, a show filled with good ideas that Fernandez can't meld into one cohesive show.
The story starts simply, with Gigi (Esther Cohen), a devoutly spiritual and political woman, forever arguing with her rebellious, drug-addicted brother Paul (Stephen Amato), who's begun to rebel against organized religion. The leader of the rebellion is Steve (Nuno de Sousa), who once was in love with Paul and Gigi's mother Grace (Michelle Bloom) but abandoned her years ago, due to escalating difficulties resulting from her affair with the local priest, Fatherlie (Henry Allen), who himself is unable to give his soul over to the church because of a secret he keeps buried deep within his soul.
The show starts off earnest enough, but becomes denser, broader, and considerably more overwrought as it goes along, eventually descending almost completely into pop opera in terms of its storytelling and musical style. Until that point, the music is surprisingly varied, with a laid-back hymn in "People of Earth Sing" for the two spirits (played by Kim Crawford and Duquincy Cooks) overseeing all the warring humans, a shimmering soprano ballad called "Visions" for Gigi, a heartfelt love song for Grace and Steve in "Where Does Love Go?," and a series of attractive duets for Gigi and Steve.
Ferndanez's book writing is less solid than his composing, with many of his scenes aiming for a heightened dramatic style, but more often than not coming across as shallow melodrama. Robertson does a surprisingly good job moving around the large cast in the small theater, but can't create intimacy quite so easily; it doesn't help that he's staged many scenes involving just one or two characters far upstage, behind the scrim walls that constitute most of Sharon Obee's set.
Robertson also hasn't done much to rein in the actors, a number of whom give performances so over the top and exaggerated as to discourage emotional involvement. De Sousa is the most understated actor, and Crawford and Cooks give performances of just the right size, but nearly everyone else overplays at one time or another. It's most unsettling from Amato, who starts out manic and expresses more complex emotions through wails or facial twitches, but Cohen - who possesses a frequently nice singing voice - doesn't do much better.
The one time the overacting seems appropriate is during Grace's big number (and the score's best song), "Wait for My Man," a blues showstopper with real wit and a terrific sense of dramatic and musical build. It gives Bloom a chance to really work the house and allows the audience a few brief minutes to bask in the glory of the electric performer-audience relationship so many musicals today eschew, intentionally or not. Musical theatre was once built on numbers (and performances) just like this one.
As good as that song is, it has only a tenuous connection to the plot - most of the more heavily integrated story songs are considerably less exciting. Nonetheless, this flash of true theatrical magic - and just a few others hidden like Easter eggs throughout the show - suggest that Fernandez is a talent capable of more than he displays in Another Life?, an occasionally intriguing show that proves ultimately too weird and disjointed to be effectively topical.
The Three Musicteers Company and Wayne Clark Productions