A Little More Alive, Book, Music and Lyrics by Nick Blaemire. Directed by Sheryl Kaller. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
The Fuller Family: Jeremy, Gene, Nate and Hospice worker Lizzie with Maggie (Mom) on film (Michael Tacconi, Daniel Jenkins, Van Hughes and Nicolette Robinson with Rachel Bay Jones); photo: Daniel Fertik
"Nobody tells you what to do with these memories; nobody tells you what to do."
Van Hughes and Michael Tacconi; photo: Daniel Fertik
The miracle of the musical is the momentary lapse of reality when the people sing because they must, because there is no other choice. Music carries a moment, conveys emotions that can't be easily spoken. Only in a musical can the mind supercede the body. Only in a good musical.That's not what we have here, in Barrington Stage Company's latest Musical Theatre Lab production, "A Little More Alive" by Nick Blaemire. Here we have a pretentious attempt at musicalizing a situation that the author has forged handsomely and then embellished with songs that don't rock the moment, but only the beat of the moment.
The play and its characters are very interesting indeed. Two sons, estranged brothers, are reunited for their mother's funeral. They discover a long withheld secret about her life which tears them apart, or seems to, until one tells the other that he'd known all about it for years. This creates a wider rift between them until they learn that their father knew the secret also. On a vengeful journey to confront a guilty party they meet a young girl whose presence and whose innocence alters their purpose and they return to their father's home to come to terms with all they've learned. I like the idea. I like a lot of the writing.
What I don't like is 95 minutes of a musical without a melody. What I don't care for is 95 minutes of interesting story without a resolution, a true resolution. When I leave a theater after a musical and I'm humming a song written by other people decades ago instead of anything from the show I've just seen that indicates a problem to me."Why Was I Born?" by Jerome Kern was the melody that gripped me on this occasion, a sentiment that seemed to go along with the show in question and my reaction to it. This melody written on a single note, like so much in the new show, sang in my head. Nothing from this one managed it, even when it was written on four notes. I don't think this is a good thing, certainly not what I hoped for in a new show.
Director Sheryl Kaller has brought the piece to life with a most engaging and talented company. Three men and two women, all of them extremely capable, present the material given them with every ounce of courage and energy possible, with every aspect of their considerable talents in evidence all the time. It is just that the material doesn't give them the possibility of grabbing and holding an audience, engaging them fully. Kaller has done a remarkable job of staging this work, with a fluid and fascinating set designed by Kris Stone, good costumes by China Lee and superbly theatrical lighting by Jeff Croiter. Lindsay Jones, the sound designer should be escorted from the building for not balancing sound better, for allowing the first song to be delivered into the overmiked hands of the conductor/keyboard player, thereby making our outing all the more difficult to grasp by not hearing more than an occasional word sung by Van Hughes. Nothing destroys an intimate theatrical experience more easily than this.
Hughes, ultimately, gives a remarkable and emotional performance as the older grieving son, Nate. Easy on the eyes and the ears, this actor turns in a wonderful performance that sparks even the most awkward of lyrical rhymes. He engages us with this character whose personal character is questionable even though he has sacrificed himself for a mother who cannot be honest with him. The fine work Hughes turns in for this show is a sacrifice indeed as Nate gives up whatever semblance of a personal life he might have had to accommodate his parents' needs.
Michael Tacconi plays his younger brother Jeremy with a magnetic force that is so dynamic it demands a great number to sing, something that is never given him in this production. Instead his character becomes unpleasant and whiny and finally outrageous before he is allowed to melt into the background where even his reactions are stifled by his lack of participation in scenes.
Their father, Gene, is given a low-key reading by Daniel Jenkins which is a relief after the wild histrionics of his two sons. Jenkins has a pleasant voice and he is asked to use it to sing riffs that a black jazz singer would find embarrassing. It's too bad because he can clearly be emotive and musical at the same time.
Faring somewhat better than the men is Nicolette Robinson, the hospice worker Lizzie, who accompanies the boys on their journey to truth. She is gorgeous with a lush and lovely voice (this company's production of "Man of La Mancha," seen earlier this summer, would have profited a lot from her being cast as Aldonza which sadly didn't happen). She makes the most of one of the better songs, "Stick Around," but not even her talents could fully rescue the monotony of the music.
Appearing late in the show as Molly, is Emily Walton. She is a refreshing addition to the play and to the company adding her expertise to the best song in the score, "With the Trees," but still without a major musical theme to explore. Her pert and infectious nature, however, does change the course of the show's plot - which is stultifying when you've been waiting for denouement and instead are given diversion and drivel.
It is clear from the production values and the talent involved that a lot of money has been thrown into this piece and I hate to think that money invested in the theater is ever wasted. When so much talent (and that includes the author who clearly is talented) cannot bring out the best in a work, then the truth is unavoidable: it may not have been worth doing in the first place, even though everyone could see the potential. The audience can certainly see the potential. Their applause, more than just polite, proves that. But it is for the living talent on the stage, not for the work itself.
"A Little More Alive" is really a little more lifeless and its sweet, sad finale is symptomatic of the work's failings. "That's what I miss...." the family trio sings and that's what I missed in this musical: a musical.
Van Hughes, Emily Walton; photo: Daniel Fertik
A Little More Alive plays on the St. Germain Stage at Barrington Stage Company's Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center located at 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA. For tickets and information call the box office 413-236-8888 or go on line at www.barringtonstageco.org.