Once upon a time, musicals' books were more or less constructed around whatever music the songwriters wrote; eventually, scores became better integrated with the action. Which is the case today? Conventional wisdom would suggest the latter, but as far as Believe in Me... a Big Foot Musical at the Fringe Festival is concerned, it's not so easy to tell.
Ostensibly the book came first, as Adrien Royce based her libretto for the show on her play Everything that Happens in the Woods is Real. And the year she's chosen for the tale, 1980, seems perfect for a study of contemporary cynicism and our reliance on conspiracy theories to survive difficult or traumatic events. If Bigfoot has been the stuff of legends for centuries, the idea she's coupled it with here - worries about the impact IUD birth control devices have on a woman's health - gives the show a distinctly modern spin.
These two stories are tied together by Arlene (Christina Norrup): A screenwriter frustrated with her failed attempts to get her documentary about IUDs developed, she's presented with the opportunity to help a renowned Bigfoot enthusiast named Nicolai (H. Clark Kee) with the documentary he wants to produce. While she has reservations about devoting her time to something she doesn't believe in, she meets Nicolai, his wife Maggie (Audrey Lavine), and their neighbors Ida and White Bird (Kelly Kinsella and David Gurland) - Bigfoot hunters all - and becomes convinced of the project's worth.
In the way that Believe in Me mixes this story with its score, however, the show is hardly convincing at all. At least the 1980s-infused pop music with which composer Michael Holland has filled the show is enjoyable, and as played by the three-piece band under Steven Ray Watkins's musical direction, it successfully conjures up the energetic cheesiness of the era's music. There are hints of disco and pop in Holland's numbers, which run the gamut from aching rock ballads to liquidy dance tunes and even parodic TV newsmagazine theme songs.
What any of this has to do with Bigfoot is never made clear. Many of the songs seem more like cabaret specialties than actual theatre tunes; they serve the characters and situations in at best nominal ways. When the book and songs interact they do so clunkily, and most of the scene-length numbers - especially the solos - seem particularly deficient dramatically. With this show, it's very difficult to enjoy the book and the score at the same time.
It doesn't help that Drew Geraci's direction and Erin Coakley's musical staging can't decided whether the show's tone should be one of earnest comedy or call attention to the show's often intentionally hokey, low-budget nature. This makes many potentially funny moments leaden and serious moments silly, never good for an already stylistically confused show. A similar problem extends to the performers, some (Norrup and Jamie LaVerdiere as her reformed radical lover) playing things straight, and others (Gurland and Kinsella) settling for caricatures.
This seems to be a common theme with Fringe musicals this year - not every show needs to be everything to everyone. Wanting another Urinetown-style breakout hit is understandable, but sacrificing a show's structural and dramatic integrity isn't a good way to make that happen. Believe in Me only seems to find itself in the second act, when the comic and serious elements come together and don't leave enough room for the excess that plagues the show earlier on. Believe in Me would undoubtedly play better with less fat from the get-go.
At least the music provides some enjoyment, and most of the performances serve the show well enough. The major exception is Kee: his singing is very weak, and he doesn't radiate the charisma or passion his character needs to involve Arlene, and us, in his quest. Norrup is likable and sings well; if Gurland is never believable as a Native American, he's very moving in his role and handles his second-act numbers (including the gorgeous "White Bird Flies Alone") beautifully; and Lavine gets a few great vocal moments, even if her only real solo has an almost non-existent connection to the story.
But for a musical apparently intended as little more than a song showcase, that doesn't really matter much. And in such a show, there are far worse things than having Lavine sing, even if for spurious reasons. Still, it's hard not to wish that Believe in Me - and musicals in general - would aim just a bit higher.
New York International Fringe Festival