The Angle of the Sun
What oh what hath Spring Awakening wrought? Though common sense insists that Love Kills, the new musical by Kyle Jarrow that just opened as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, must have been in the works long before the Tony-winning Frank Wedekind uprooting became the talk of the town, your senses tell a different story. Painfully loud rock music from an onstage band. Songs only occasionally rhyming and less frequently connecting with verifiable, theatrical emotions. Teen angst as filtered through an MTV reality series. Even the direction, by Jason Sutherland, so frequently utilizes microphone stands as extensions of characters' self-worth, you might well think you're a few more blocks uptown.
At least Jarrow has a surprise in store: The author of the delightful spoof A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant has provided some worthy fragments of a book. In the scant minutes in which it may be heard amid the blaring electric guitar and bass and drums, the story deftly compares the obsessive love of Nebraskan teenagers Charlie Starkweather (Eli Schneider) and Caril Ann Fugate (Marisa Rhodes), who murdered 11 people in late 1957 and early 1958, with that of the more lasting and rational kind demonstrated by county Sheriff Merle Karnop (John Hickok) and his wife Gertrude (Deirdre O'Connell). As the elders try to get the youngsters to switch sides and confess to the deeds before it's time to turn them over to the courts, everyone learns a bit too much about the lengths to which some people will go for matters of the heart.
But the songs that delve into the erotic expanses of Charlie and Caril's bloody relationship don't pierce the skin of truth themselves - they're too busy expanding one-spark emotions into ear-consuming conflagrations that make much adolescent ado about nothing. Schneider and Rhodes are talented vocalists, true, with Schneider displaying a remarkably controlled sandpaper scream that can give way to a cooing falsetto of Frankie Valli value. Neither, however, finds in Jarrow's sketches much humanity to transform these troubled kids into recognizable, even sympathetic souls.
For that you must turn to the adults. Both Hickok and O'Connell approach their roles primarily as actors, and deliver performances as the sage (but not spotless) Karnopps that provide genuinely smoothing comfort in what is otherwise a very scratchy show. When they duet about the true meaning of forever ("Someday"), or the warmly matronly O'Connell lets loose with a haunting lullaby for a girl on the edge of a precipice, it's clear that hope and meaning are being found in the one place musicals like Love Kills and Spring Awakening don't generally bother to search for them: tranquility.
Venue: 45th Street Theater, 354 West 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, 1st Floor.
The Angle of the Sun
"Art isn't easy," wrote Stephen Sondheim as the defining mantra of his own exploration of the painter's ethos, Sunday in the Park With George. But in The Angle of the Sun, the show they've written that treads on much of the same territory, Rachel Lampert (book, lyrics, and direction) and Larry Pressgrove (music) have added a capital-letter codicil of their own: "And relationships are even harder." Combining art and relationships in a musical, though? That's downright impossible. Lampert and Pressgrove, unfortunately, have not come close.
Their central character is Jan, a painter whose brush strokes on her own personal canvas never quite resemble the success she craves in either career or love. We follow her attempts to find professional and romantic fulfillment across two decades, from 1966 to 1987, as she pursues success through her passion and runs through a series of four men who reflect some defect crucial to her right-brain worldview: College student Andy is artistically indifferent; photographer Carter is artistically addicted; power-broker Seth is artistically uninterested; and Toby is the ultimate art project, a gay man Jan wants to fashion into her ideal mate.
Jan is played with more winning verve than is necessary by Amanda Watkins, who makes the somewhat strident, self-absorbed woman into the attractive eccentric next door; Jesse Bush vanishes completely into each of her lovers, making it far less difficult to track the current state of Jan's love life than it should be. But while both sing well, neither is well served by the score, which sounds as though it were written on staff paper with question marks. The songs essay blinks of thought and rambling impressions of emotional experiences that achieve one musical-theatre ideal of conversation set to music, but are on such a subdued, unassuming level they all sound alike - and few sound distinctive.
"Little Bitty Moccasin" and "Thunder Rising," for country boy Carter, temporarily break the mold with their Southern fervor, but have no lasting impact on a score that, like the show containing it, is content as a charming little portrait of a woman exceptional only in her ordinariness. A musical of two hours in length, however, needs to convince us of what's special about a woman whose personality and personal soundtrack are more Kenny G than Kenny Rogers. In The Angle of the Sun, Jan's spiritual follow spot never burns quite brightly enough.
Venue: The Sage Theater, 711 Seventh Ave, 2nd Floor, between 47th and 48th Streets.