Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio, has spent considerable time developing new musicals over the last decade, either through their Musical Theatre Workshops program or with full productions of newer works. One of their most satisfying productions of these emerging shows was Convenience, written by Greg Coffin, which was workshopped by Human Race in 2002 and fully staged in 2004. Mr. Coffin's current show, right next to me, was likewise workshopped in Dayton two summers ago and now closes out the theater company's 2010-2011 season. The musical is a serious, thought-provoking tale of how one family starts the healing process after the death of a soldier in the Middle East. right next to me has changed dramatically in the two years since it was presented in workshop, but could use further tinkering to reach its full potential.
right next to me follows the story of Jen Marshall, who lost her husband Dave in Iraq one year ago. Mike, Dave's brother, is traveling to Jen's house so they can fulfill the fallen Marine's wish to have his ashes scattered at various locations important to family members. With the help of Jen's friend Trish, the grieving pair learns how to let go of their pain and move on.
As in Convenience, the music, lyrics, and book are all the work of Gregg Coffin. When workshopped in Dayton, the show told three separate yet connected stories. In its current version, the musical focuses on just one plotline. While the story is generally interesting, personal, and poignant, it needs a stronger beginning and a clearer focus in its message. It isn't until about twenty minutes into the show that you actually begin to like any of the characters, so getting more empathy and understanding earlier would be beneficial. The show has a very strong and emotional ending, along with some effective humor at times, but is overall a downer and very episodic.
The Convenience score was fun, upbeat, and highly melodic. For this piece, the material calls for a more serious and somber tone. While the result is a well crafted and appropriately solemn musical landscape generally, the score is without many standout songs or highly memorable tunes. The lyrics are praiseworthy, but sometimes fall a bit too much on the sentimental side. The strongest numbers out of the nearly fifty songs are typically those in the happier flashback scenes ("Two Chilly People," "I Just Met My Wife"), along with some moving ballads ("Hold On," "I Can't Believe Your Gone").
The four cast members all sing very well and create realistically flawed characters. Jamie Cordes embodies the strong, formal manner of Marine David, who helps his wife finally deal with his death. Maria Couch displays depth and variety in her portrayal of Jen, and is a strong foundation for the show. Jim Poulos (Mike) conveys the anger and confusion of both a grieving brother and a fellow Marine unable to adapt to life back stateside. As Trish, Dana Mierlak provides some welcomed energy and comedy relief.
Director Melissa Rain Anderson supplies solid blocking, an apt tone, and smooth transitions. She also understands the situations and feelings of the characters, but should ensure that the pace of the piece doesn't drag. Ms. Anderson has been with the show for a while now and should help to further shape the show into a more audience-friendly piece which more clearly conveys the motivation of the writer. Erik Daniells leads a talented four-piece band playing Mr. Coffin's orchestrations.
The black and white unit set by David A. Centers is divided in three sections and uses smaller set pieces and props, as well as a few tastefully rendered projections, to communicate the specific locales of the story. John Rensel's lighting is highly theatrical and effective, and the costumes by Lowell A. Mathwich are suitable and handsome. Special praise must go to Sound Designer Nathan D Dean for his well-timed and executed sound effects.
right next to me is a unique and serious musical which needs further development and improvement to become a first-rate musical. With the opening taking place on Memorial Day weekend, the exploration of the personal toll of war on those left behind is a timely one. The solid direction and performances, along with many strong elements in the writing, help to make this a theater piece which should be seen by Dayton audiences during its current production.
right next to me continues at the Human Race Theatre Company through June 12. For performance and ticket information, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org.