Regional Reviews: San Diego
Now, having a band tell a story isn't new (see, for example, The Who's Tommy, which was developed at La Jolla Playhouse) and telling heartwrenching stories through song isn't new, either.
But Hundred Days, at The Playhouse through October 21, seems fresh and new. Maybe it's the way the story is told, mostly from a woman's point of view, with Abigail taking the lead and Shaun chiming in wryly and supportively (the book is by the two Bengsons and Sarah Gancher). Maybe it's the songs, which, while not breaking much musical ground, still seem up to the minute.
Or, maybe it's the fact that Hundred Days is very much a theatre piece, though it masquerades as a rock concert. It has a director (UC San Diego alum Anne Kauffman) and a movement director (Sonya Tayeh). It has designers: co-scenic designers are Kris Stone and Andrew Hungerford (the former also designed props, while the latter also designed the lighting); the costume designer is Sydney Gallas; and the sound designer is Nicholas Pope. Yet, the set looks mostly like a set-up for a band show, the costumes look like what a band of this type would wear on stage, and the sound design (which is outstanding) makes certain that the audience hears everything it needs to hear.
The plot outline is pretty sparse: Ms. Bengson tells the audience about the difficult life she led growing up and how that difficult life turned into one where grief was a controlling emotion. She talks about meeting Mr. Bengson, falling in love but then having rocky times emotionally (Mr. Bengson provides his perspective as well). Eventually, things come crashing down, and Ms. Bengson flees. Mr. Bengson goes looking for her. Catharsis happens, love prevails.
And all of this is accompanied by songs. Several of them are introduced as being written by one, the other, or both. But, Ms. Bengson also says that the band initially played covers, so some of the songs may not be original (there's no song list provided). The show ends with one that is explicitly introduced as being written by both Bengsons. It is a very satisfying ending.
Maybe something that Ms. Kauffman has reported to have said provides a clue: "I've always been very interested in writers who have a kind of mystery to themsomething that makes me work a little hard and is compelling and mysterious ... trying to get at the world from a slightly odd angle." In Hundred Days, Ms. Kauffman's interest and the writers' seem to mesh well: One of the ups and downs of the storyline has Mr. Bengson becoming ill and Ms. Bengson reverting to a grief fantasy about having only 100 days to live. There is a diversion into what those hundred days might consist of, and taking that diversion seems to allow love to triumph over grief. At least, that's what I got from it: your mileage may vary.
In any case, the staging is very precise, which is not at all like a rock concert would go. All of the very capable performers have roles to play (Barrie Lobo McLain and Reggie D. White, who were part of the New York Theatre Workshop version of the show, have larger roles; Ashley Baier and El Beh, who joined the production here, less so). There is a sense from Ms. Tayeh's movement, that everything is very thought out, leaving little room for any improvisation. So much precision can result in distancing the audience, but I didn't see any evidence of that.
Audience enjoyment may be dependent on how much one identifies with Ms. Bengson's memoir and how much one enjoys the songs. I observed a lot of identifying and enjoying going on.
Hundred Days, through October 21, 2018, at La Jolla Playhouse's Forum Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla CA. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 7pm, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are available by calling (858) 550-1010 or by visiting LaJollaPlayhouse.org.