Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
With a title like Don't Make Me Pull This Show Over: Dispatches From the Frontlines of Parenting, audiences may come in expecting to see a show that is start to finish a comedic romp through the many ups and downs of being mom and dad. However, this musical revue, which is now receiving its professional world premiere production by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC), is at its best during some of the more serious moments (of which there are quite a lot). Though ETC provides a solid mounting of the piece, the creators have more work to do on the show to reach its full potential.
Don't Make Me Pull This Show Over generally follows the structure of one of the more famous thematic revues, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, except that, instead of topical songs on love and dating, this new musical tackles the joys and sorrows of parenthood. In both shows, the performers play different characters in each song, and, though there is no ongoing story, a linear progression of events starting from news of pregnancy through dealing with grown children exists. However, where I Love You ... is almost exclusively a comedy, this world premiere show divides almost evenly its tone between the funny and dramatic sides of the parental roles. Individual song storylines include comedic takes on sleep deprived new parents and a mom's inability to make edible cookies, as well as touching scenes about the effects of divorce on parenting and dealing with a grown child in a coma.
The score is by Richard Oberacker (music and lyrics) and Robert Taylor (lyrics), the team that brought Ace to Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park a few years ago. Mr. Oberacker's music is solid and tuneful, yet rarely possesses that spark that makes a song standout. Lyrically (and topically), the funny songs aren't funny enough. And, though the serious songs are often extremely poignant and touching, they don't offer many unexpected insights. The best songs are found in the middle of this 90-minute show. "Still Our Country" is an emotional anthem conveying a mother's anger at learning of prejudice demonstrated against her child by her daughter's teacher. "If I Could I Would" is a beautiful a capella number for the entire ensemble, and "Emails From China" effectively chronicles a couple's trip to adopt a child. On the comedy front, "I Had A Freakin' Box" (two dads' reaction to their kids playing video games night and day) and "What Took You So Long" (a mom's very hilarious reaction to her son coming out of the closet) produce the show's biggest laughs. However, these highlights are offset by a number of low points. The opening number is musically unappealing - not the greatest way to start off a show. Additionally, one song entitled "Against The Glass" feels oddly out of the place and another, "Reversal," has lyrics so vague that neither the situation and person which the song details are decipherable.
ETC has put together a talented and versatile cast for this production. Charlie Clark puts his strong singing voice to good use, and scores with many of the show's best laughs. Jessica Hendy is a potent singer and is as convincing as a soon-to-be adoptive mom as she is as a former pothead reacting to her teenaged daughter's new drug habit. a. Beth Harris brings both focused introspection and intense energy to her roles, and her husky and colorful singing voice is a great complement to the ensemble. Allen Kendall provides sufficient vocals, as well as many poignant acting choices. While Kate Wilford appears a bit unsettled in some of the group numbers, her comedic solo numbers are some of the best moments in the show.
Director Richard Hess capably guides his cast to give tender, genuine and apt interpretations of each song and situation, and stages each scene effectively. However, the small performance space, and the material itself, seem somewhat limiting. Mr. Hess has been with this show for at least a year (it was part of Cincinnati's Fringe Festival last summer) and more shaping, trimming, and the establishment of a stronger identity is needed. Scott Wooley energetically leads a strong five-piece band.
Set designer Brian Mehring provides an attractive, sleek and stark all-white unit set with a small, round performance space in front of a door surrounded by various sized blocks, most with a single letter cut into it. Though the blocks symbolize the physical building blocks that children play with, as well as the emotional and educational foundation parents try to instill, it seems that they could have somehow been used more effectively. Mr. Mehring's lighting is suitable and professionally rendered, but the costumes by Reba Senske are everyday (though that may very well be the point).
Don't Make Me Pull This Show Over: Dispatches From the Frontlines of Parenting has a number of things going for it, including a marketable topic and some very good songs and moments. However, more work it needed to make this the show it could and should be. Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati audiences will likely enjoy and be entertained by much that they see and hear, and will hopefully be able to someday say that they saw what has become a successful show in an early incarnation. ETC presents the show through May 17, 2009. For tickets, please call (513) 421-3555.-- Scott Cain