Also see Sharon's review of Floyd Collins
Nobody has ever left Riverdance thinking, “Wow! What a great story!” But Riverdance has established a huge international following despite its skeletal plot, because it uses that plot as a framework on which to hang superior dance and musical performances. The same could be said for productions by Cirque du Soleil. The story is usually little more than an excuse for increasingly impressive circus acts performed in a theatrical style. These shows, and others of their ilk, succeed because, when all is said and done, the actual performances have been so astonishing, nobody cares that the plot was weak, ridiculous or trite. Everyone acknowledges that the plot was just there to give the performers an excuse to perform.
Hoping to be the next successful entry in this field is Barrage, a company of musicians - predominantly fiddlers - whose show Vagabond Tales is now touring the Los Angeles area. Where Barrage falls short is its failure to recognize that a weak plot is only acceptable in this context if it actually supports the performance and invites all sorts of displays of artistic excellence.
The story of Vagabond Tales is one of two tribes of gypsies who meet under a solar eclipse to compete, musically, to determine which of their members is to be their leader. So far so good - it isn’t any worse than a bunch of cats deciding which one gets to go to the heavyside layer. So, you settle in for an expected evening of one virtuoso performance after another, as each member of Barrage takes center stage to show you the best they’ve got. It could be “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” to the nth degree. Only that isn’t what music director Dean Marshall and director Brian Hansen have in store. There are very few solo numbers; instead, the entire company plays nearly every song. There’s no real competition between the players, very few moments of one-upsmanship, and no legitimate attempt to make any fiddler stand out from the rest. (Indeed, the performers who most stand out are Jason Graham on guitar and Bob Fenske on percussion, as they are the only ones who play their respective instruments, and they each have a moment in the sun.)
Other elements of the plot (which we are given in voice-over narration) are also contradicted by what is shown on stage. We are told of the separation between the two tribes, and that their music sounds better when played together; but since we never hear only half the company play, this concept is not brought to life on stage.
When stripped of the plot it frequently works against, what Vagabond Tales comes down to is a bunch of musical numbers performed by an enthusiastic group of young musicians who attempt to combine their musical performance with some sort of movement across the stage in order to make it visually appealing. The music itself, comprised of tunes written by Marshall plus a handful of well-known songs, is undeniably well-played, although Marshall has not included much music that appears extraordinarily difficult, and therefore impressive, to play. (The aggressive musical tones of “Live and Let Die,” when played synchronously on several violins, are perhaps the most lasting memory from the show.)
In terms of staging, Barrage again gets itself into difficult waters. Fiddling does not easily lend itself to choreography, and there’s only so much bow tossing and fiddle flipping that the company can do before they start reaching for ideas best left unreached. At one point, several fiddlers play while bouncing on exercise balls as though on Hippity Hop toys. While there is doubtless some level of skill involved in multi-tasking in this manner, there is no real purpose to it. A line of people fiddling while each balancing one foot on an exercise ball might be difficult, but it isn’t entertaining.
Without a doubt, there is a lot of talent involved in Barrage. These young men and women all have impressive credits and, if given the opportunity, can make their instruments sing. But they are hampered by a production that seems determined to trap them in numerous ensemble numbers with corny choreography, rather than inviting them to just get out there and play.
Barrage performs Vagabond Tales at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center - Terrace Theatre on February 18-20; the Performing Arts Center - Big Bear Lake on February 24; the Haugh Performing Arts Center at Citrus College on February 26; and the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza - Fred Kavli Theatre on February 1-6. See links to ticket information at www.barrage.org.
Jam Theatricals and Annerin Productions in association with 5 to 1 Entertainments present Vagabond Tales. Music Director Dean Marshall. Director and Choreographer Brian Hansen. Executive Producers John Crozman, Dean Marshall, Anthony Moore, Larry D. Saloff, Jana Wyber. Barrage is a concept of G.R.U.B. Entertainment, Inc.
Musicians: Seonaid Aitken, Jon McCaslin, Jason Graham, Bob Fenske, Carly Frey, Mitchell Grobb, Benjamin Gunnery, Tim Harley, Matthew Harney, Jessica Hindin, Thomas Sidebottom.