Leaving Queens, the new musical that opened last night at Women's Project Theatre, unquestionably comes from the heart. Nearly every word spoken or sung seems to come from the personal experience of Kate Moira Ryan, the show's playwright and lyricist. Why then, if the material touches her heart, does it fail to touch ours?
At the beginning of the play, Megan (Alice M. Vienneau) returns from a dangerous overseas assignment photographing for the U.N. to discover that her father, Joseph, has disappeared. Neither her mother, Anne (the winning Barbara Tirrell), nor her son, Michael (Alexander Bonnin) knows where he is, but when Megan uncovers information about the past her father never talked about, she is compelled to take up the search.
The search makes up the bulk of the musical, but feels more like an unrealized subplot than the tortured main character's quest for understanding. While it is possible that Megan's search for her father through photographic evidence could have worked dramatically, and even musically, here it does not. Megan is seldom allowed to be an active participant in the action. For a significant portion of the play, she is forced onto the side of the stage while recreations of the past (possibly in her mind, possibly not) play out center stage. While these recreations are seldom boring, they seldom involve us, or Megan, emotionally.
In fact, there are only two times that the musical succeeds at connecting with its subject matter dramatically. The first is in the first act duet, "Picture Show," where Young Joseph (also played by Bonnin) and his mother (also Tirrell) spend an afternoon together while Joseph's father is out drinking. The second is near the end of the second act when Megan and Michael are finally able to realize the dreams they share and sing the heartwarming "We Could 'Home'."
The music, by Kim D. Sherman, and played by only a piano, violin, and cello, is frequently interesting, combining the "post-modern" Broadway canon with tunes with an unmistakable Irish folk influence. The music is most effective when it focuses on its Irish heritage. When it does not, it is distractingly evocative of Stephen Sondheim, perhaps never moreso than a song in the first act entitled "Art is Not Useful."
The lyrics, however, seldom match the score's daring. Too often, especially in the first act, the rhymes seem very forced and predictable. The problems with the lyrics are somewhat understandable, though, given the troubles that exist in the book. It is immediately obvious how close Ryan is to her subject matter. What is less clear is why it should be important to us. The lyrics and the book don't allow us to really understand the characters' problems, or what the specifics of their relationships are. With so much attention drawn to Megan's missing father, it is impossible to not hope for a more satisfying resolution than the script provides. With the exception of the aforementioned "We Could 'Home'," when the characters begin understanding themselves better near the end of the show, we don't understand them much better than when we were first introduced.
Vienneau, as Megan, has a strong voice and does decently by the material, but can't overcome the weaknesses in the lyrics. Barbara Tirrell can, and frequently does do much better - her warm presence elevates every scene she's in. She appears the quintessential mother, and delivers every line and lyric with such sincerity that even an otherwise superfluous song can come across as heartfelt and believable. Cynthia Sophiea has a smaller role, and is stuck with some of the more "Sondheim"-ish songs in the show, but delivers effective comic relief and insight when needed. Bonnin is able to draw a clear distinction between Michael and Joseph, but doesn't seem as brash or unruly as the script wants us to believe.
Though quite straightforward, the sets, as designed by Anita Stewart are clever, utilizing a combination of projections, drop-down blinds, and simple set pieces that always make the location very clear. Allison Narver's direction, likewise, is simple but adequate, though always best when she is able to integrate the projections into the story. In a story where photography plays so important a part, it is vital that that element not disappoint. Luckily, it doesn't, the photographic projections are often able to capture emotions when the book or songs cannot.
The first number in the show, "Let Me In," follows Megan's overseas assignment to focus the eyes of the world on some truly unfortunate souls. In order to do this, she must focus her camera on their souls as well as their physical appearance, so the true story - whatever it may be - can come to the surface. Leaving Queens could eventually be a solid, moving portrayal of a woman's struggle to better understand her family and herself if it were subjected to that same focus throughout. Until then, it remains too blurry and fuzzy to be truly effective.
Women's Project & Productions