Off Broadway Reviews
at The New York Musical Festival
Plunging you into the mind of a troubled soul is not easy for the theatre under the best of circumstances, but musicals make it more challenging still: A demented psychology and a damaged mind do not naturally sing anything we'd want or need to hear. So for their entry at the Pearl Theatre as part of this year's New York Musical Festival, Forest Boy, Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie have accomplished a minor miracle in just getting their own study of an afflicted, deluded person to stay uprightand never stop movingfor 90 minutes.
The frantic motion that "movement director" E.J. Boyle has created, which exists somewhere between club dancing and pantomime, is so pointed and (within its own realm, anyway) purposeful, that it almost convinces you there's a lot more going on here than there is. But do what they may, Boyle, Gilmour (book and lyrics), McKenzie (music), and Robert McQueen (direction) can't obscure the fact that there's just not that much for them to say about this story in this way.
Its plot involves Ray (Will Connolly), a young man who emerges from a forest in Germany one day in 2011 with no name, identity, or personal history, and captivates the country with the secrets he's not capable of revealing. Different figures float into and out of his lifean investigator named Maas (Remi Sandri), a girlfriend named Lara (Erika Olson), various social workersbut they, too, are like disconnected ghosts drifting through dusty memory. The closest "real" person to Ray is his father, Ryan (Christopher Russo), with whom the boy is (was?) astonishingly close, and who continues as Ray's spiritual guide despite no longer being physically present to offer advice, encouragement, and protection.
These people wind throughout and about the community of the world, which here is embodied by the additional members of the ensemble. These people occasionally fill the roles of bridges, obstacles, chaperones, partners, critical social media dwellers, and more, and each is a link in a chain that constantly forges and reforges as it binds or releases Ray at each step along his journey. Streaming and clumping around the stage, they reconfigure, endlessly and fluidly, to depict the alternately quickening and slacking pace of Ray's life and to position him within the public from which is unavoidably alienated. All this ensures that, although the set pieces (by Ann Beyersdorfer) are minor and the lights (Ed McCarthy) basic, each stage picture dazzles, an emotional collage that's forever under development.
But if Forest Boy, which is based on actual events, is thematically arresting, its specifics are rather more pedestrian. The songs are a bland blend of rock and Sondheim-light styling that aim for both theatrical and hip but don't quite hit either. Much of the score seems crafted to fit inextricably into the concept without wiggle room for greater emotions; there's a lot of singing and a lot of underscoring, but little that means anything and less that sticks. At least the singing is strong (if not spectacular) and the band, conducted by Wiley DeWeese, energetic.
Somewhat shakier is the book, which too often doesn't know what it's trying to communicate, and is hampered by Gilmour trying too hard to be clever with form. His efforts to keep you on your toes institute a bait-and-switch quality that consumes investments of your attention and emotion that the material itself is unable to repay. Unspooling the narrative from Ray's perspective makes sense at the outset, but becomes dicier as his personality and background fall into place. What we learn makes too much of the evening as constructed an impossibility, yet it continues on without further evolving, as though it, too, doesn't even buy what it's selling.
Despite fine performances from the cast, especially Connolly as a deliciously elusive Ray and Russo as a truly paternal and sympathetic Ryan, once the show hits this tipping point, there's no way for it to fully cohere. Whether it can all be "fixed" is difficult to say; the problems are so integrated into the concept and its presentation that serious restructuring might be the only way to get everything to realign. There's unquestionably good work here, and intriguing ideas that are given total synthesis by members of a creative team who are all clearly operating on the same artistic wavelength. You just sense that they, for all of their accomplishments, can't see Forest Boy for the trees.