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Waiting for the Glaciers to Melt

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Creative differences can cause trouble for any musical, but seldom are they more damaging than when the book writer and the composer have different ideas about the nature of the show. That's the primary trouble with Waiting for the Glaciers to Melt, though this ambitious musical at the Midtown International Theatre Festival is further marred by both the composer and librettist being one person, Brian Lane Green.

Composer Green is an intelligent and detailed melodist, taking his cue from the "post-modern" style yet with a unique original sound, a combination of Jason Robert Brown in musical sophistication and Jonathan Larson in lyrical purity.) His honest, highly internal numbers soar without confusing or showing off; as songs, they represent solid theatrical composition whether tiny fragments of thought or anthems of big ideas or emotions.

Librettist Green is far less sure-footed, though the central idea for his story is sound. Garrett, a gay man in his 30s, is facing an emotional breakdown brought on by his own insecurities, a recent history of promiscuity and drug use, and a serious relationship with a man named Lucky that turned out very badly. As Garrett obsesses and worries, he delves further into his own mind attempting to find solace, if not answers.

The show's two acts are highly uneven, the first mostly finding Garrett angsting over an AIDS test and the second finding him daring to confront his dark past; in this way, the show often feels like a one-act musical with an arbitrary intermission that is preventing the show from a coalescing as a whole. As it is, there's little cohesion, or a structured stream of consciousness that might help ground the story and better communicate it to an audience. It's a long time, for example, before the reason for the presence of a young boy in a wheelchair and his grandmother is made clear; they seem overtly symbolic, but their connection is not truly evident until late in the second act.

That resolution is part of the troublesome yet necessary sequence that occurs when Garrett finally summons enough fortitude to confront the ghosts of his past and subconscious, so it can't be easily extracted. This sequence is to this show what "Loveland" is to Stephen Sondheim's Follies, though it's barely musicalized, relying on avant-garde and obtuse dialogue unlike anything that's come before instead of the personal and intriguing musical language Green uses throughout the show. It's a vital moment that should be moving but instead falls flat, throwing much of the show into disarray.

This sequence, like the rest of the show, is intelligently and abstractly directed by Kristen Coury, who generally does a good job of creating a swirling miasma of past, present, reality, and fantasy all coexisting. It's difficult to judge the impact of Mitch Samu's musical direction, as the accompaniment (provided by one piano) sounds like it's piped in over the sound system, distancing the music from the action, and sometimes drowning out the performers.

It's a good group of people, though. Stephen Bienskie beautifully captures Garrett's insecurities and Matt Zarly richly sings and interprets lucky. Eric Millegan and Queen Esther, as the wheelchair-bound boy and his grandmother, give intense, heartfelt performances (Millegan's physical transformation from health to disability is particularly impressive), but never quite make their roles seem integral to the action.

Then again, neither does Green. He's remarkably equitable, giving everyone plenty to say and sing, but often a poor judge of what needs to be presented and when. (Esther's songs, though well performed, feel particularly extraneous.) Still, based on the strength and content of the score - which deserves to be heard or recorded, preferably with a fuller set of musical arrangements to provide the music the power it's capable of having - there's much that's good in the show, and plenty of room for further development and exploration with the concept.

Green demonstrates the great benefit of collaboration in musical theatre, as each of the two halves of his theatrical personality - composer and librettist - is too unwilling to yield to the other for the greater good of the work. While a director with a particularly strong vision may be able to help center the play and work with both Greens in finding the show's true voice, as of now, the changes that will best enrich and clarify Waiting for the Glaciers to Melt have not yet been made.

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Fourth Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival
Waiting for the Glaciers to Melt
Through July 30
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Abingdon Theater Arts Complex, 312 West 36th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200