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Inner Voices: Solo Musicals

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Judith Blazer
Photo by James Leynse.

Loneliness in the presence of others - whether a group or just one other - is one of humankind's most peculiar and potentially debilitating feelings. As fodder for a musical, especially one told in the currently popular stage vernacular of tuneful discord, it conjures up images of one person's songs clashing with the crowd, uniting only in harmony at the show's triumphant climax. But how can writers communicate this basic, universal idea with only a single person onstage? The new evening of Inner Voices: Solo Musicals, at Primary Stages, attempts to answer this question. And it succeeds only about 25 percent of the time.

That amounts to roughly 20 minutes of this 100-minute, Jonathan Butterell–directed evening, all of which unfold - but aren't necessarily contiguous - after intermission. That's when you're exposed to David Simpatico and Josh Schmidt's unruly but fascinating venture, "Whida Peru: Resurrection Tangle." In it, the title character - whom the always-terrific Judith Blazer plays as a combination of Chita Rivera, Liza Minnelli, and Fran Drescher - speaks almost constantly to dead people who find her life, and the way she's choosing to not pursue it, wanting.

Some of the spirits are playful, some disruptive (balloons pop and chairs fall over of their own accord), and some - particularly Whida's late lover - are downright snarly. But they all throw into clear relief a woman who hasn't just forsaken the company of others but has abjured the living altogether. Never stepping outside her cramped dwelling, and speaking to others only if they speak to her first, she's become a type of ghost herself, and is slowly discovering - with some phantasmal help - that haunting pre-Purgatory isn't all it's cracked up to be.

It's a juicy premise that Blazer plays to the hilt, delighting with her violently comic outlook that slowly peels away to reveal a grief-stricken woman on the verge of collapse. Watching this expert singer and actress toe the edge of the cliff of despair, sometimes backing away and sometimes stepping perilously forward as she tries to chart her future course, is an uncommon theatrical pleasure. And Butterell stages her, on Dane Laffrey's cannily crowded living room set, to emphatic effect.

These accomplishments are not matched bit for bit by the writing. The music - part flamenco, part subway, part séance table-rattling - covers ground no less idiosyncratic than did Schmidt's score for the musical Adding Machine did two years ago, but lacks that show's sumptuous sense of expansive style. Here, the sound is akin to background noise, and is partnered with a book and lyrics that skim Whida's ego but never pierce her soul in unexpected ways. Her final fate and the troubles that lead up to it, are strictly of the been-there-done-that variety.

Heidi Blickenstaff
Photo by James Leynse.

Even so, "Whida Peru" looks downright revolutionary compared to the curtain-raiser, "Mosaic." Written by Cheri Steinkellner (libretto) and Georgia Stitt (music), this insufferable 40-minute navel-gazer finds songwriter Ruth (Heidi Blickenstaff) composing a video letter to explain the paths and truths of her life to her unborn child. These include her early bouts with success and subsequent failure; romance and loss; and that most melodic of diseases, Hodgkin's lymphoma.

This is supposed to play as a sweet celebration of impending motherhood, and perhaps it would if the story contained any theatrical necessity. But the book and lyrics are truly pedestrian, wallowing in sorrow after sorrow without elevating Ruth's hopes and fears to the plane of the musical. And though Stitt's music is pretty in the plunkety-plunk way of many high-low concept musicals today (Adam Gwon's Ordinary Days sprang instantly to mind), it possesses no unusual distinction or personality. Combining these elements is a recipe for disinterest: Even Ruth's supposed hit song "Not Now," which we're assured has captivated countless straight girls and gay boys, sounds more like it would lose an American Idol songwriting contest than become the next "On My Own" or "Defying Gravity."

Butterell only contributes to the blandness here, but in fairness, his work has been hamstrung by a concept that requires Ruth spend most of her time planted at a table behind a MacBook. With its screen (and far too frequently, its screensaver) projected upstage, Blickenstaff is constantly fighting the electronics for attention - and losing. This is somewhat understandable, as Ruth gives Blickenstaff nothing substantial to play, but she managed much brighter specificity in [title of show], despite occupying that show's most underwritten role. Here all she does is sing and stop, and speak and stop, leading you to snore and seldom stop.

Blazer's eliciting genuine human qualities from her own sketchy character proves connection is not impossible, but neither show makes it easy. Then again, neither does the format. In a previous Inner Voices: Solo Musicals evening two years ago, only one of the three shows on offer - Michael John LaChiusa and Ellen Fitzhugh's "Tres Niñas" - soared. But it did so because it presented a fascinating woman dealing with a compelling problem by way of haunting, lyrical, and emotionally and intellectually astute compositions.

In other words, it treated a one-person musical as if it were a full-scale musical rather than a graduate thesis. That's the only approach that works, and its underuse in "Mosaic" and "Whida Peru" leaves both of those shows looking, sounding, and feeling as lonely as their characters.

Inner Voices: Solo Musicals
Through April 24
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticket Central

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