Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
November 16, 2012
It isn’t easy to delve inside the head and heart of a character – let alone a country. Two new musicals make a valiant effort, but neither hits paydirt .
“A Hammer, A Bell and a Song to Sing” is the updated version of a world premiere workshop production presented last January. It was kind of a last-minute throw-together, when legendary singer/songwriter Pete Seeger pulled his support for a tuneful story about his life and work. So the creators – director Todd Salovey and his cast of three singer/musicians, cobbled together a potpourri of political and protest songs coursing through the stream of American history.
It was something of a hodge-podge, jumping around in time and theme. But audiences, especially older ones, loved the singalong parts, a nostalgic opportunity to revisit their youth. They still do. But in the months since that premiere, little has changed in the piece – except for wisely condensing it to one intermissionless act, and making one dramatic addition: killer singer Lisa Payton, who gives voice and soul to the African American melodies that have shaped our nation.
But there’s still no structure or arc, the organization feels casual, the quotes from various American luminaries seem random – and there’s still no mention of gay issues, while so many other civil rights battles are given time. The direction is static; the actors put all their energy into trying really hard to get you to like them. The projections are more pointed, the personal stories add emotional heft, and the musical highlight turns out to be Seeger’s after all: his powerful 1967 TV-censored anti-war parable, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”
Now, creating a musical in the usual collaborative way is challenge enough. But doing it all yourself – book, music and lyrics – for a first-timer, who’s also producing, is more burden than one man should bear. It’s commendable, but unlikely to result in across-the-board success. Kudos to Robert Moutal for trying. His production of “John Doe, the Ultimate Midlife Crisis” is interesting in concept, but it cries out for assistance, especially in lyrics and libretto.
Here’s the setup. A comatose man, found in a park in his pajamas, is temporarily dubbed John Doe at the hospital. We learn who he is when his two-faced wife finally shows up. But we also glean a good deal from a motley Greek chorus, referred to as The Figments, who turn out to be parts of his personality stuck inside his head, prodding him to wake up and tell the truth of what’s happened to him. There’s more predictability than enigma and less vocal prowess than one would hope, except for knockout Jane Lui , a bona fide recording artist.
Overall, you’d have to say that both new musicals are in the very early steps of what could be a long journey.
“John Doe, the Ultimate Midlife Crisis” runs through November 25 in the Lyceum Space in Horton Plaza.
“A Hammer, A Bell and a Song to Sing” continues through December 2 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.
©2012 PAT LAUNER