The January Book
A labor of love by author/director Scott Warrender, The January Book, now onstage at Seattle Public Theatre's Bathhouse theatre, is an enchanting original musical comedy. After a string of workshop versions in the last decade and a half, the show now seems ready to go on and have a life independent of Warrender's paternal eye. What production imperfections there are seem slight when contrasted with the rich and emotional music and deftly quirky lyrics of this gifted craftsman of the theatre.
The January Book is that trickiest of beasts, an original musical, which means we are experiencing it without any preconceived notions based on having seen a book, movie or play. Rest assured - though it may take a while to get acquainted with the eight characters in Warrender's text, they make worthwhile company.
Set in the January, a Maine seacoast inn, built in the late 1700s, the book of the title is a guest register, from which the lives of the characters spring. They include a wild-eyed and possibly mad young Englishwoman on a quest to find her sister, and a secretive, seemingly crippled gardener in the post Civil-War 1860's; a treasure-hunting Damon Runyonesque gangster and his brassy moll in the 1920s; a bereft middle-aged widow returning (in the 1950s) to the Inn where she honeymooned years earlier who is befriended by a vaguely familiar young woman awaiting her own husband's arrival; and in the 1960s, the current innkeeper who is also a struggling novelist and a down on her luck, fading Hollywood B-picture star. The four couples' initially self-contained stories eventually intertwine and play off each other, sometimes confusingly but always engagingly.
Warrender (as director) and choreographer Amy Harris aren't always able to keep the movement and staging of the four couples - co-existing in separate time-periods - from certain awkwardness and cluttered feeling. Many times, in act one especially, this took focus away from the characters central to the scene at hand. Yet when these characters are singing, which is most of the time, these issues become fairly negligible, thanks to Warrender's harmonious blend of music and lyrics, successfully spanning a myriad of song style. And his cast sings and acts the hell out of them.
Karen Skrinde lends her unique and amazing voice and comedic intensity to the character of Lillian, playing this balmy British lady as a delicious cross between Hamlet's Ophelia and Sweeney Todd's Nellie Lovett. Her paramour, Billy the gardener, is played by Timothy Glynn, who has always impressed me vocally, but here seems more physically relaxed and at ease in his characterization. The pair share two of Warrender's best melodies in "Sea, Wind and Sky" and the alternately hilarious and poignant "Wild Lily."
Maggie Stenson finds all the humor and pathos possible in Florence, the bereaved and unhappy widow seeking renewal through a trip to this sight of her past happiness, and her rapturous rendition of Warrender's wildly melodic waltz "Then" is a musical highlight of the show. Stenson and Krista Sevareid, as the young woman Florence has more than a little in common with, work beautifully in tandem, and Sevareid uses her lightly lyrical voice scrumptiously on her one solo "Can You See It." A few line tweaks by Warrender could help clarify the big reveal of the duo's relationship, however
David Wilson as gangster Harry and Shawna Wilson (no relation) as his less than trustworthy moll Franny are the broadest characters onstage. Mr. Wilson seems more accomplished as an actor in each successive role he takes on in Seattle, and here shows he could probably play either Sky Masterson OR Nathan Detroit in Guys & Dolls with equal ease. Ms. Wilson seems like a Matron Mama Morton just waiting to play Chicago and has a big, brassy Mermanesque belt voice well suited to the show's oddest number, an ode to "The French Riviera" that seems as foreign to the rest of Warrender's score as "Follies Bergere" does in Yeston's Nine.
As innkeeper/author Thurman, Mark Sparks has but one song ("Type Type") and warrants another to help complete his character's arc, but he is charming and amiable and gets some nice, droll laughs. Susan McIntyre as Connie really has a great handle on both the comic and dramatic sides of her Hollywood has-been role. With her great husky voice, she interprets a hilarious '60s pop style solo number "Melody Box" and a warmly expressive next-to-closing ballad ("Starry Night") with equal impact. The whole company does smashingly on the zippy act one closer "Beautiful Evening", which sends the audience out to intermission on the same kind of high that Sondheim does with "A Weekend In the Country" in A Little Night Music.
Seattle Public Theatre clearly hadn't the budget to spend much on production trappings, save for attractive, period appropriate costumes by Leanne Hittenberger. But, happily, this is not a show you need to walk out of humming the scenery. With musical director Andrew Shields and a spirited onstage combo's assistance, you happily walk out humming the hearty music of Seattle's best music man, Scott Warrender.
The January Book, produced by Seattle Public Theatre at The Bathhouse, 7312 W. Greenlake Drive N., through October 26. For tickets, phone (206)325-6500.