Sometimes all that can be taken at face value is that nothing can be taken at face value. That's part of theatre's peculiar beauty - from performance to performance, or even from viewer to viewer, the same sight, sound, and feeling is never experienced twice. Everything, or at least all that matters, is less about what you see than about how you see it.
So for a musical in which nothing may be straightforwardly accepted, there could scarcely be a better writer than Michael John LaChiusa. From presidential wives to a Creole Medea to a musical La Ronde, LaChiusa's writing takes more chances, flies higher and sinks lower, and inspires more ferociously diverse opinions than that of nearly any other contemporary composer.
It makes sense, then, that his new musical See What I Wanna See, which just opened at the Public Theater, should combine his varied, divisive voice with our burning (and often crippling) yen for the uncertain. At least we can all be absolutely sure of what we're unsure of. If LaChiusa makes some missteps along the way, he still beautifully captures the sense of eternal mystery he's aiming for.
That same feeling is omnipresent in the Ryunosuke Akutagawa stories LaChiusa is adapting: "In a Grove" is Akutagawa's best known, as it was made into the 1950 film Rashomon, but "Kesa and Morito" and "The Dragon" similarly force the reader to question his own preferences and prejudices, and discern what really happened from a host of available options.
LaChiusa and Ted Sperling, who directs with a sharp and sexy flair, most lucidly explore this idea in "R Shomon," the first-act centerpiece that transports "In a Grove" to 1951 New York. The death of a taxi company owner (Marc Kudisch) who got involved with a cunning thief (Aaron Lohr) leads to several recountings of the event in a police interrogation. The thief, the victim's somewhat-aggrieved wife (Tony winner Idina Menzel), the janitor who found the body (Henry Stram), and the victim - speaking through a medium (Mary Testa) - all offer different opinions about exactly what led to the killing.
In the ways it capitalizes on the fluidity of conscious thought and unconscious memory, "R Shomon" is almost conventionally unconventional. Though its brassy, serpentine arias, pointed recitative, and the smoky diegetic title song (sung by Menzel in the club where her husband and the thief meet) provide a sound simultaneously unique and evocative of post-WWII New York, the piece shocks with how unsurprising it is. This lack of innovation hurts it somewhat, though the motifs that are established and developed (some of which don't pay off until the second act) do weave into an electric blanket of a musical tapestry that definitely heats up the theater.
But in the wake of The Wild Party, LaChiusa's fiery pre-Prohibition riff that played Broadway in 2000, his work here - though professional and accomplished - seems only adequate, enticing but never exciting. The hot sounds (the six-piece band that musical director Chris Fenwick leads sounds terrific playing Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations) and hot sex of the jazz-noir scoring never quite summon an atmosphere as evocative as Akutagawa's. "In a Grove" derives its impact from its serenity, the cool matter-of-factness with which it presents its murder mystery story; LaChiusa can't use that for obvious reasons, but he never finds a sufficiently rich substitute.
What he does have, here and throughout, are wonderful performers: Kudisch and Testa, time-tried LaChiusa interpreters, don't disappoint; they miss no musical, dramatic, or comic nuances, and peel away layer after layer to find the heart, soul, and even truth beneath their not entirely likeable characters. Lohr, a LaChiusa newcomer, is an assured, erotic, and violent presence never quite matched by the sexy Menzel, who steams but never smolders.
She fares better in "Kesa and Morito," in which she sings of the release from guilt she hopes to find by killing her illicit lover after her husband learns of her affair. Later, the lover (Kudisch) tells a similar story - with a slightly different outcome - from his vantage point; it's never more clear that the little details can mean everything.
But it's "Gloryday," the third and strongest story, that brings everything together. Ostensibly about a disillusioned priest (Stram) who, a year after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, perpetrates a hoax designed to divorce people of their religious fantasies, it quickly becomes about the illusions (including hope) that bind people together in times of turmoil.
The priest's hoax spreads, convincing the world that Jesus will visit Central Park, and everyone from a workaholic CPA (Kudisch) to a drug-addicted actress (Menzel), from a cynical reporter (Lohr) to the priest's atheistic aunt (Testa, at her crackerjack best), become swept away. Not because they believe it's true or because they believe it's a lie, but because they believe it will help them learn what that truth or lie really is.
The music and lyrics are exultant, the book scenes are intimately moving and bereft of excess, and the performances are all perfect; Stram, who barely registers in "R Shomon", is particularly powerful as the answer man suddenly trapped in a world of irreconcilable questions. By show's end, the characters all have answers, but don't necessarily know more than when they started. That not knowing might be catastrophic for them, but it's cathartic for us, an enlivening reminder that faith, like truth and beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.
See What I Wanna See