For Cincinnati audiences, 2006 has been (and continues to be) a good year to catch the newest and brightest musicals this country has to offer. We had Company in its pre-Broadway run at Playhouse in the Park, and the national tour of Wicked in the spring. This fall will see the national tours of all four of the 2005 Best Musical Tony Award nominees. But, perhaps the most surprising announcement was that a small theater company such as the Know Theatre of Cincinnati would be presenting the first post-New York production of the recent Off-Broadway musical See What I Wanna See. This show is well-suited to this hip group, who last year scored with Tick Tick Boom. Their staging of See What I Wanna See is an effective and moving one, and local theatergoers should be grateful for the opportunity to catch this intriguing piece so soon after its New York run.
The show is actually a combination of three separate stories. Opening each of the two acts is a song from two lovers in medieval Japan as they describe their plans to murder each other after their final lovemaking. The rest of act one centers around a murder and rape in Central Park in 1951. The audience is offered different accounts of the crimes from each of four suspects. In the remaining portion of the second act, a priest who has lost his faith due to the 9/11 tragedy propagates a fake miracle that is to take place in Central Park.
Based on the short stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (as translated by Takashi Kojima), the aptly titled See What I Wanna See presents situations and events from the varying perspectives of those involved, with each character perceiving and understanding them differently. Songwriter Michael John LaChiusa has made a career of composing musicals based on the darker sides of mankind, and this subject suits his talents well. His lyrics explore the characters with a psychological introspection that few other songwriters reach, and his music is unique, varied (according to the setting), and that rare blend of being both challenging and accessible to the ear. See What I Wanna See is closest in musical sound to the composer's Hello, Again, and far better than his most recent show, Bernarda Alba (which sounds much more like LaChiusa's Marie Christine). The best songs of the score are "Kesa / Morita" (which form the Japanese storyline), "Big Money", "No More", "Glory Day" (where the faithful gather and prepare for the miracle in act two), "There Will Be a Miracle", and the title song. In general, the music of act one is stronger, while the book elements of the second half work better.
Know Theatre's production is helped greatly by a strong cast, a splendid orchestra, and solid direction. The five member cast consists of Liz Holt (Kesa/Wife/Actress), Derek Snow (Thief/Reporter), Charlie Clark (Morito/Husband/CPA), Robert Williams (Janitor/Priest), and Molly Binder (Medium/Aunt Monica). Mr. Snow sings strongly, and Ms. Binder is both funny and touching in her act two scenes where she gets to shine. Mr. Clark is probably the best singer of the cast and does wonders with his non-verbal acting choices. Ms. Holt has the most challenging vocal demands. While she excels in the material in her lower register (and sounds a lot like Idina Menzel, who performed the role in New York), some of the songs are beyond Ms. Holt's range. Mr. Williams too has some notes that he can't quite reach, and seems a bit miscast as the priest. Still, he and the rest of the cast give this show a strong overall performance.
Director Jason Bruffy deserves a lot of praise as well. He hits all of the right musical cues with his cast, and gives the production the appropriate pace, tone, and blocking to capture the piece's dramatic impact. With only a few props taking the place of a traditional set, the lighting by Sean M. Savoie is more important than usual and effectively conveys transitions and mood. Musical Coordinator O.yemi has formed an extremely talented 8-piece orchestra that is energetically led by Musical Director Alan Patrick Kenney, in one of the most impressive musical displays by a theater of this size in years.
Know Theatre of Cincinnati is to be commended for obtaining the rights to this small, thought-provoking musical and delivering a worthwhile production. See What I Wanna See continues in Cincinnati through November 4, 2006. Call (513) 300-KNOW for tickets or more information.