Cemeteries are often seen as where life ends, but how often are they depicted as where life begins? The setting for The Gathering Room might be unconventional and even unsettling, but the show and the production it's given are not at all lacking in the life that any musical, however modest, must possess to be successful.
In many ways, this adaptation of Colby Rodowsky's children's novel is an extremely modest musical, one that in many ways looks and sounds as if it emerged from an enterprising community theatre company. The book (by Valerie Kingston, Becca Bandiere, and Janice Goldberg) and the score (by Bandiere and Jimmy Flynn) often play as well-meaning but emotionally simplistic, the type of unpolished writing that sophisticated theatregoers might dismiss without a second thought.
But even if this show is aimed squarely at audiences for whom two hours of no-frill family entertainment is sufficient, it somehow makes its straightforward, open-hearted nature work in its favor. Refreshingly free from the trappings and pretensions that make so many Fringe Festival musicals feel like bargain-basement Broadway tryouts, The Gathering Room is revealed for the unassuming, thoughtful, and moving show it is.
That's because the show's three librettists have truly made the characters central to the story. Nothing is allowed to intrude on our getting acquainted with the Potter family, who have spent the last few years living in the Edgemont Cemetery gatehouse and restoring it to its former glory. The painstaking work Ned (Michael J. Reilly) and Serena (Robin Lyon) have done will soon be finished, and they will have to move on with their lives. This may prove especially difficult for their son Mudge (Dashiell Katz), who's grown particularly attached to the cemetery.
With only his parents to talk to, he's immersed himself in the books detailing the lives and deaths of the many interred at the cemetery; he's come to see them as the friends he doesn't have and just as real as his parents. While Ned and Serena are concerned about him, they keep their fears under wraps until Ned's older sister Ernestus (Christina Britton) arrives, determined to reconstitute the family that broke violently apart three years earlier. Suddenly hiding from one another, and the world, is no longer an option.
The handling of Ernestus and the threat she represents is one of the show's few major flaws: The book works too hard to maintain the mystery about the Potters' back-story, arbitrarily not revealing the full truth until the final minutes. The idea is that Mudge's rehabilitation makes the family's reconciliation possible, but it's not handled as well as it could be; the book otherwise carefully delineates the problems and solutions along the way, and makes the characters' other emotional transitions quite smooth.
The songs are more of a mixed bag. The show's lengthy musical prologue establishing Mudge's ghost friends, the soul-searching solos for Serena and Ned ("A Little While" and "We Are Staying," respectively), and the rapturous finale exhorting the necessity of human relationships ("Someone") are seldom surprising, but moving and attractively composed. Others, like the unfortunately titled "Hot Dogs and History," addressing the cemetery's importance as a tourist attraction, or the baldly incongruous "The Reporter's Tango," demonstrating the Potters' uneasy relations with the press, feel like they were written merely to give their performers something to sing.
If that is the case, at least everyone has the acting and singing abilities to sell even the silliest musical sentiments. The actors playing the ghosts (Mark Bove, Kevin T. Collins, Stanley Harrison, Mary Ann Conk, and Elanna White) all seem to be having a grand time exercising their comic chops, and Katz himself is a strikingly strong actor, singer, and dancer for his age. Lyon brings heartfelt sincerity to Serena, and Reilly and Britton acquit themselves nicely opposite her, if Britton's more operatic soprano is sometimes overpowering. Anthony Colangelo is fine, if underutilized, as another young boy Mudge meets.
The talented cast proves ideal for this show, and aside from executing too much of Shelley Frankel's high-school style choreography, no one ever really feels false or overblown. The direction (by Goldberg), design (Robin A. Paterson did the impressively elaborate set and lights, while Neil Koch did the colorful costumes), and musical direction (Laurence Rosania) are decent enough on their own, but are most notable for the way they never stand in the way of the performances.
That's no doubt why, within its own limited strictures, this show is as successful as it is: It's putting emotional honesty, its actors love of performing, and the unadorned communication of its story first. If many shows won't want to emulate much about The Gathering Room, they'd do well to at least pay attention to that.
New York International Fringe Festival