Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Rebecca's review of Don't Dress for Dinner
It's fifteen years after the end of the second world war and aspiring young musician Harry Daimler (Kyle Segarra) is on a mission. Armed with what little information his mother (Marybeth Gorman) is willing to provide, his father's dog tags, and the old LPs his parents recorded before the war, Harry embarks on a quest to find out everything he can about his father's life and death. His search leads him to jazz singer James L. Johnson (Rob Tucker) and some very difficult truths. Much of the story is told in flashbacks that follow his father (Michael Philip O'Brien) from reluctant member of a bar mitzvah band all the way through World War II.
Act one is fast paced and full of great music in a dizzying array of styles. "The Whole Thing," "Swing Shmuel Swing," and "To the Top" are fabulously fun. Johnson's soulful rendition of "Mister Blue" is a punch to the gut. Segarra cannot really pull off 17, but his manner is so earnest and his vocals are so strong that it does not matter. O'Brien gives a powerful performance as a man struggling to find his place in the world. Gorman plays Harry's mother with subtlety and restraint, but her voice does not always lend itself to the shifting styles of music as well as the rest of the cast. Mike Inwood's dramatic lighting designs add to the sense of drama while Christopher Haig's minimal set design gives the whole theater a 1950s cool jazz club vibe.
The second act is a bit of a let down. The score is not as strong, the pace slows, and when we finally find out what happened to Harry's father the big reveal is underwhelming. There is also opportunity for improvement in Harry's plot arc, which is so tightly focused on discovering his father that what is happening to Harry in the present day (1960s) starts to feel like an afterthought. It would be great to have more about Harry's musical development or his relationship with his mother.
"The Whole Thing" is a phenomenal opening number that epitomizes Harry's naivety and the upbeat rock and roll of the early 1960s. I wanted the closing "Big Red Sun" to reveal Harry's evolution and the exciting new music on the horizon, but instead I got angst and a bland ballad. There is a lot to love in this production and a lot of potential that is still unrealized.
11th Hour Theatre Company's Big Red Sun, through June 17th, 2018, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street, Philadelphia PA. Tickets are available online at www.11thhourtheatrecompany.org or by phone 267-987-9865.