Sometimes, a musical comes along that announces itself from its first few notes as something very, very special. The Woman Upstairs, in the New York Musical Theatre festival, is just such a musical.
Those first few notes from composer Brian Lowdermilk occur as part of what at first sounds like a roiling cacophony, a dozen different sung melodies all overlapping. But slowly it becomes evident that this isn't just random noise: Overtones are being created, individual threads of music are weaving together to form a tapestry of emotion and sense of place that overcomes you like a wave crashing against the rocks. The sound is New York, and it's as familiar as the constant rush of sound of the streets, but simultaneously invigorating and musically new.
The story itself (the book is by Kait Kerrigan) is of the more run-of-the-mill variety. The titular woman is Helen Morton (Deb Heinig), a physics professor specializing in acoustics. She loves noise but can't stand music, and thus resents downstairs neighbor, Milo (Aaron Ramey), constantly practicing his violin. They eventually become enamored of each other, though Milo can never completely puncture the wall Helen has built around herself: she's an orphan, and recently learned of the death of her long-lost brother Phil (Aaron Berk). Add in trouble at work with the professional threats and personal advances of her colleague Dr. Kassan (Kate Shindle), and Helen has every reason not to open her heart.
Yet as Milo introduces her to the music she once was not willing to perceive, she begins to look at him and the world around her very differently. She notices a singing evangelical chorister she's long avoided; two strangers in the subway finding a subtle but firm romantic connection becomes the stuff of magic for her; a young hippie woman encourages her to let down her physical guard and allow music to affect her soul; and a hapless homeless woman named Gracie (Alison Fraser), whom Helen paid to leave her alone, begins to give her the love, affection, and guidance she never had.
Lowdermilk and Kerrigan (who also contributed additional lyrics) bring these moments, and others, vibrantly to life in a score that incorporates a range of styles from classical musical theatre to hip-hop to Jason Robert Brown rock-show tunes. But there's no inconsistency of tone or style, and everything flows. Milo's thrilling rock-infused ballad "Of Course," Kassan's comic criticism "Options," and the rowdy "Lady Lady" rap for Helen's class all feel at one with each other and the numbers sung by various denizens of New York, songs that punctuate the action, but contribute more to the show's emotional and stylistic fabric than they necessarily advance the plot or reveal character.
This risky, potentially fatal, gamble pays off like gangbusters, and makes The Woman Upstairs one of the year's most exciting musical dramas. This is just a concert presentation - the actors carry their scripts - and has been directed by Kerrigan with suggestive staging at best and almost no sets (a few chairs, a bench, and so on). Still, the attention to emotional detail and musical-theatre know-how is so strong that the show already feels almost entirely complete, like a first-rate Encores!-style production of a brand new work. Small tweaks and perhaps clarifications of the concept could be made, but overall this is a strong, moving show.
The tremendous cast is a vital part of the production's success, and just about everyone's wonderful. Heinig is ideal as the uptight, reserved Helen, and she's got fantastic chemistry with the intense and eminently likable Ramey; Shindle brings a haughty, regal bearing and a light sense of underhanded comedy to Kassan. The ensemble is a tight and talented group, but a few standouts include Rodrick Covington and Josh Young as two rapping students, Sheri Sanders as the instructive hippie, Pearl Sun as a young nurse (who leads a gorgeous chorus number, "I'll Still Be"), and Gwen Hollander and Sarah Shahinian as two young girls discovering the city.
Fraser does her usual reliable work here, bringing her trademarked maternal quirkiness to Gracie, and executing the character beautifully. At the performance I attended, she sounded either ill or vocally tired, but it didn't distract at all from her complete performance, important given the few key songs she must deliver, including the lovely "His Arms" and the comic watching-the-people-go-by number, "Me and Jackie D."
Her other song is her most important - the first one. Though her vocal in that number, "The Number One Complaint," doesn't begin until after that arresting musical language has been introduced, Fraser is vital in outlining for us what Lowdermilk will spend the rest of the show proving. The complaint to which the song's title refers is, of course, the noise of the city, and as was evident at the start of the show, that noise will be unavoidable here. We all contribute to the noise around us, but can and must focus on the glorious individual sounds that constitute the sometimes unlistenable whole.
"I, for one, think the noise is pretty," Gracie sings, and Lowdermilk makes such a compelling case that, by the time the show is over and we've been exposed to everyone's music, it's almost impossible to disagree. When that statement is applied to the score of The Woman Upstairs, however, it's far less accurate, and just might be the theatrical understatement of the year.
New York Musical Theatre Festival