Return, if you will, to New York in the 1920s, a time replete with decadence, speakeasies, vaudeville, and the burgeoning influence of jazz. Picture amid all of this an ill-fated woman, a Modern, a chorine who just as well may be dancing with a knife in one hand and a martini glass in the other.
This particular image never occurs in Lulu, a new musical at the Fringe Festival with music and lyrics by Adam Gwon and a book by Gwon and Courtney Phelps, but it's all you need to understand the show. Lulu is content to dance her life away, while leaving a string of grizzly yet unintended murders in her wake, all to the strains of a score sizzling with the heat of summer and belching out enough smoke to cast everything onstage in dim, barely discernible silhouettes.
This results in a heavily atmospheric show, if one that never works quite as well as it should. Even more than the story that weaves obsession, death, love, and sex together in a series of ever-shifting patterns, the show's style seems to suggest it has as its more modern antecedent something other than its stated source material of plays by German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind. Specifically, Michael John LaChiusa's 2000 musical, The Wild Party.
Viewers can't be blamed if that show influences the absorption and appreciation of this one. There are many similarities: the opening number, a down-and-dirty biographical burlesque (roughly akin to the opening scene of Alban Berg's opera, also based on the Wedekind); the tone of the music that sips in the humidity of New York evenings; even the heroine herself, in desperate need of more but with no clue how to get it, and played by Brooke Sunny Moriber, who originated a role in LaChiusa's show.
Overall, though, very little in Lulu possesses the incessant, go-for-broke energy typifying either the pre-Depression 1920s or a modern concept musical like The Wild Party. The show is staged, by Phelps, as a demonic burlesque act, with the characters emerging from the chorus and melting back into it once their purposes have been fulfilled. (The set, consisting of black chairs at the stage's periphery and an Art Deco door frame, is by Ryan Scott.) The necessity of this frame, and the silent-movie sequences that reduce a number of heavier dramatic moments to slapstick, is never made clear.
As for the score, it pounds almost continuously, clinging to the stage like a low mist, but it never erupts in a truly theatrical way. Some songs occasionally try to introduce different kinds of energy - sexy, humorous, or even (gasp) romantic - but their effects never last long. That's not really surprising - love and lust aren't the operating themes here - but whether there's a sole textual center for the show at all is never really evident. The story and characters seem crafted around the music, which makes cohesion difficult; the sound may be distinctive and even memorable, with relentless and haunting melodies and harmonies, but it's not enough for the show to thrive upon.
The performances make a stronger impression. Particularly good is Daniel C. Levine as Rodrigo, Lulu's lifelong friend and a major operating force behind her compulsion to marry men who will kill themselves when they discover they can't have her forever. Levine's presence is a morbid but gleeful one, and his gleaming smile and take-no-prisoners voice (he sings the bulk of the show's most vocally challenging material) are perfect for his devilish character, who narrates the action in ways similar to Cabaret's Emcee.
Most of the other leads are top-notch, including Craig Wells and Selby Brown as Lulu's first ill-fated lovers, and Bill E. Dietrich as her most violent; Jessica Morris as the Countess Ivana, a woman who can't resist Lulu's allure; and even Maggie Letsche as Miranda, the hostess at the dance club Lulu eventually finds herself trapped in. Least effective is Kevin Kern, giving a modern and listless performance as Alva, the man with whom Lulu falls genuinely in love. Kern sings well enough, but is never compelling as either a writer (he dreams of making a talking picture) or the heroine's great love interest.
As for Moriber, she once again proves herself one New York's greatest underutilized talents. A petite actress with a voice ten times her size, Moriber is ostensibly correct as the vivacious Lulu, a little girl forced into the dark dangers of womanhood by the lust and greed of the era. But despite working very hard, and being captivatingly dressed (by Trevor McGinness, whose period costumes set the perfect mood), she's never exactly believable as a temptress that men give their lives for.
Still, it's hard to imagine anyone else being much better; Moriber gives the role just about everything it needs, but the show doesn't give her enough in return. The show feels similar from the audience: While there's enough in Lulu to appreciate, nearly two and a half hours of mostly unrelieved darkness and depravity makes for slow going, however intelligently composed it may be. When the show ends, you'll find yourself - like the characters - craving every bit of light you can get.
New York International Fringe Festival