Hearts Are Wild

Also see Ann's review of The Importance of Being Earnest

Ben Evans and Julie Dingman Evans
The City Theatre is offering a world premiere of a new rock musical, with songs by George Griggs and book by Darrah Cloud. Hearts Are Wild is perhaps the second in a series of Griggs "garage band musicals" (an apt term coined by the New York Times regarding Griggs' earlier rock musical Heat Lightning). With lyrics that rarely move the plot along, and several that seem to have been written for another story, there is little of the necessary integration to make this a true musical theatre piece. However, many of Griggs' tunes offer a good rock listen, and they are played well by a three-piece band. And, though the story isn't particularly unique, Cloud provides many laughs which are mined to the fullest by a hard-working cast directed superbly by Tracy Brigden. If you don't ask for more, you'll have fun.

Ben Evans plays Steve, who is "nearing forty" and going through an early midlife crisis. He's unappreciated in his work, he loves his wife Sharon (Julie Dingman Evans - she and Ben are married) but feels a lack of excitement in his marriage, and the rock band that follows him around encourages him to answer the question, "is that all there is?" Yes, there's a rock band that only Steve can see and hear (its appearance is setup by Steve's parents' pilgrimage to Elvis for a prophecy of baby Steve's future). Steve's discontent is exacerbated when his assistant at work (Billy Hartung, in one of a number of entertaining comic roles) is promoted to Steve's boss, a job Steve wanted but never really went after. It's no surprise that Steve is tempted by his new, young, attractive, and aggressive free-spirit assistant Brianna (Katie Allen). As he makes it through this emotional crossroad, Steve learns (of course) what's really important, and how to stand up for himself and take a little control of his life. The only real surprises are what outlandish character Billy Hartung will appear as next (they include Elvis, Steve's father, a non-English speaking hairdresser, skater dude). The denouement of Steve's love dilemma is telegraphed early with a prediction: "The wild one will save you and the safe one will kill you" - with its obvious twist.

The band, with Craig "Izzy" Arlet on guitar, Tom Earley on drums, and Brian Stahurski on bass, does a great job with the rock score. Griggs' Ray Davies influence is evident, but there is a good variety of rock styles, including ballads and rap. However, there are some pretty poor lyrics throughout. Some of the songs just don't work: the act one closer, "Brianna," either needs more irony to be funny or fresher lyrics to be poignant; the title song, sung as a finale, is a great rock song, but too obviously tacked on; the idea of "Sit and Spin" (maybe what you're thinking - marking time by sitting and spinning in your office chair) is taken way too far, as is the unnecessary "Don't Cry at the Office." Alternatively, the show starts out with a bang with "The Oracle at Memphis" and Ben Evans and Billy Hartung's dueling "I'm a Real Man" is very funny and succeeds well.

The biggest treat of the evening is watching Ben Evans work this character like he's doing a solo comedy show. He's an excellent physical comic, plays the "shlub" nature of Steve perfectly, and makes what could be a cynical and unsympathetic character a very likeable one to root for. He may sound like a trained singer, but he does well enough in most of the songs. Evans really makes this show enjoyable. The two women have less opportunity to show their stuff, but both are clearly talented singer-actresses. Katie Allen shows a depth of maturity that belies her age and experience (she's a senior at Point Park University). She makes Brianna sassy and sexy, and never waivers in a solid characterization of the young temptress. Julie Dingman Evans works within the limitations of her character to show a woman who wants to save her marriage, yet has the same fears as her husband. To round out the excellent casting, Billy Hartung exhibits incredible adroitness by creating more than a handful of unique comic characters. In a great mix of humor and restraint, he makes each character hilarious without forgetting that these are supporting roles.

Scenic Designer Michael Olich has created a very efficient set consisting of two tiers of black panels that illuminate or open to reveal the various settings which include Steve and Sharon's apartment, the office, a coffee shop. The band is placed in the middle top panel where they perform and observe. This configuration works extremely well and makes the most of the stage, allowing set changes without sacrificing anything in the pace of the show. Congratulations to Sound Designer Keith Bates for successfully tackling the challenges of volume and comprehensibility.

This is Hearts Are Wild's debut production; it's possible the components can be worked to make a more solid piece of musical-comedy theatre. As it is now, there is a lot of fun to be had in watching the performances and catching some good rock tunes.

Hearts Are Wild runs through February 19 on the City's mainstage. For performance and ticket information, call 412-431-CITY or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org.

See the current Schedule of Pittsburgh Theatre.

-- Ann Miner

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