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Songbird

Theatre Review by Howard Miller


Eric William Morris, Adam Cochran, and Kate Baldwin
Photo by Jenny Anderson Photography

Anton Chekhov is transported to Tennessee in Songbird, the talent-filled if uneven new musical at 59E59 Theaters that draws its plot from The Seagull while shifting things from 19th Century Russia to a modern day Nashville honky-tonk.

Friends and family have gathered at the rustic bar (nicely captured by Jason Sherwood's set design) for the long-awaited homecoming of famous-but-fading country music star Tammy Trip (a resplendent Kate Baldwin). Tammy has returned, her considerably younger boyfriend Beck (Eric William Morris) in tow, ostensibly there to support her son's debut as a singer-songwriter. Things swiftly turn Chekhovian the very moment Tammy makes her grand entrance, declares herself to be "just a proud mama" cheering on her son Dean (Adam Cochran), and then proceeds to make absolutely certain that she is the center of attention, interrupting and undermining Dean's performance until he stomps off in frustration.

Playwright Michael Kimmel has adhered closely to the source material in developing the show, and aficionados of The Seagull will be able to find a match in the Chekhov play for each of the 10 characters (plus one dead bluebird) in Songbird. There is also a lot of liquor-fueled reminiscing, backbiting, jealousy, cheating on spouses and partners, and unrequited love that mirror similar situations in its progenitor. And if you know The Seagull, you will also not be surprised by the ending.

So —variations on a theme by Chekhov. Except, of course, Songbird is a musical. As such it is filled with a wide range of country songs, soulful ballads, blues, and even some rock tunes penned by Lauren Pritchard, an actress (the original Broadway cast of Spring Awakening) and singer-songwriter who performs under the name Lolo. Here the songs have been designed to display the talents of the characters, most of whom are musicians and singers, rather than to either serve the plot or to define the characters. (An exception is the music that is attributed to Dean, whose moodiness is reflected in the songs he writes and performs).

This is a gutsy approach for a musical, as most of the numbers start with someone picking up a guitar or other instrument, jumping in with a tune, and then allowing it to end without flourish and without inviting audience applause. There is only one intentional crowd grabber, and that is near the beginning of the play when Tammy, always the showoff, sings one of her early hits, a number called "Country Roads." It is meant to thrill the folks at the bar as well as the audience in the theater, and it does just that. Pretty much everything else encourages you to admire the excellent musicianship of the performers, though without a pause for applause.

Among the singers, it is the women who shine the brightest, especially Kacie Sheik as Missy, who pines after Dean, just as Dean yearns for Mia (Ephie Aardema, another fine singer), who, in turn, is ready to give up everything in order to follow Beck. Ms. Baldwin is terrific as Tammy, a woman who knows how to exude public charm but who also shows herself to be a manipulative narcissist, not to mention a lousy mother. In a smaller role, but giving off a glow of her own, Erin Dilly is a delight; a bitchfest scene between her and Ms. Baldwin is priceless.

Truly, though, this is an ensemble effort, and everyone contributes 110 percent under JV Mercanti's direction. I do believe, however, that the overall production would have been strengthened by using Chekhov as inspiration rather than as a template. As it stands, too much emphasis has been placed on staying true to The Seagull, leading to predictable and melodramatic plot turns. Despite a slew of first-rate performances, Songbird needs some breathing room of its own in order to soar.


Songbird
Through November 29
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral


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