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Off Broadway Reviews


Theatre Review by James Wilson - October 25, 2023

Patrick Olson (center) with Cherry Davis, Summer Sheldrick,
Miya Bass, Lavy Cavaliere, Bella Kosal, Dana Liebezeit,
and Samara Brown

Photo by Russ Rowland
"Things are not as they seem." This is both the subtitle and guiding mantra of Emergence, Patrick Olson's strangely captivating new show currently playing at Manhattan's Signature Center. (Emergenceis not a Signature Theatre production.) The reversal of expectations is first made apparent when the traditional red velvet curtain with gold fringe rises, and Olson, lying prone on the bare stage, is raised by a group of singers and dancers to an upright position as if he were a hipster Lazarus. From there, while simultaneously channeling musician David Byrne and Science Guy Bill Nye, Olson launches into a performance piece that can be best described as a combination rock concert, modern dance show, and science lecture. Defying logic, it all somehow works.

In a previous professional life, creator and performer Olson states that he was a science textbook editor. As a result, some of the material in the songs and references in the periodic banter, including riffs on the ways in which our brains perceive color or theories about the creation of the universe from a tiny bit of infinite energy, appear to be extracted from a high school physics curriculum. Imagine, though, if the nerdy science teacher were supported by an eight-piece new wave band, a quartet of chic and grooving back-up singers, and a trio of dancers, who slither, roll, and pirouette across the stage, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Emergence. Or, in keeping with the subtitle/mantra, maybe not.

Although there is a fair amount of scientific analysis, Olson's presentation is never dry or off-putting. Heck, I might even have made it out of junior-year chemistry if that course had been similarly presented with psychedelic lighting and amphitheatre-style acoustics. (Mike Avenaim produced the music, and a phalanx of designers, including Jordan Noltner, Nick Proctor, Jonathon Corbiere and Tyler Sammy, Wasted Potential, Futuretalk, Inc., are behind the stunning lighting and LED visual design. Angela Aaron is credited as the show's stylist.)

Comprising ten songs with playfully banal titles like "Uh-Oh," "Falling," "Walk," and "Energy," Emergence takes some time in warming up to the audience. The heavily amplified music and flashing lights require some getting used to, and the first few numbers seem to suggest that it will be one long pop-punk concert with elaborate and often whimsical projections. One's enjoyment will also depend on a tolerance for new-age bits of wisdom (infused with scientific argot), such as:

"The whole universe is in you.
You are a universe unto yourself.
You and I are connected to each other and
to an evolving vastness,
to an expansion of space and matter
and energy and life that has
no boundaries or edges."

As the evening progresses, however, Olson's cheekiness becomes more beguiling, and the individual talents of the singers and dancers start to emerge from an initially undifferentiated ensemble. Comparable to Byrne's American Utopia on Broadway a few seasons ago, Emergence contains familiar elements of an arena show yet it blends theatricality and dramatic structure to create a more intimate experience. The show ponders such existential questions about consciousness, the time continuum, and the hugeness of the cosmos, but to Olson's credit, we are always aware of the individual and outsized talents of people on stage.

Emergence will certainly not appeal to all theatregoers, but at a time in which we are inundated with news about infuriating and horrific incidents throughout the world, it may offer some respite from the awfulness. There is, after all, something comforting in being reminded about our infinitesimally puny lives in relation to an unfathomable and supremely indifferent universe. Even more surprisingly, you might even find yourself bopping to the beat.

Through January 7, 2023
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: