When I first read the description of the NYU Experimental Theatre Wing’s most recent mainstage show, I was sizeably intrigued. Something about an experimental concert piece and the music of pop artist Prince, and it was called I Think I’m Falling. When I sit down in the theatre with my program, I read director Richard Armstrong’s program note, which again stresses that the piece would be more of a concert than a play or musical, and that the cast has simply tried to find the essence of each Prince song they’ve utilized, blending in their own memories and attitudes. My confidence in the concept of the show is only strengthened by Daniel Dabdoub’s quirky set and costume design, which is a brilliant mashup of Prince concert, royal court, 90s club kids, and Alice in Wonderland. The basis of the design is the black and white checkered chess board floor, with staircases heading off the board in every direction. The whole set is subtly trippy, with the checkerboard floor and general ground plan set at strange, subtle diagonals, and with some audience members seated essentially onstage, blurring the line between a proscenium and thrust. The gorgeous centerpiece of the set is a white staircase that climbs to the top of the theatre, tapering off gradually, appearing eternal and ether-bound.
As the actors emerge one by one, it is revealed that Dabdoub’s costume design is even more genius. Boasting an evident awareness, if not knowledge of high fashion, Dabdoub designs several actors in complex, unique faux-runway pieces (for a school show budget, anyway). The best example is his costume for actress Alex Salame. Salame is given a gorgeous black dress, with a stiff, high bodice, uneven skirt length, and long, thin flap in the front reminiscent of ancient Egyptian fashion. The piece is uniquely angular and unusually sexy. Yet Dabdoub shows mastery in several other styles as well, from Matt Phillips in gold-and-sparkles go-go drag, to Ian Lockwood in re-envisioned Clockwork Orange. And he’s still unafraid to throw Molly Horan in a trashy Queen Elizabeth Halloween costume with a short, puffy skirt under a long transparent tulle layer. Plus, all the characters are mesmerizingly made up, with fully-sparkled lips and intimidating makeup masks around the eyes. The whole design, including Zach Blane’s lighting, is detailed and constantly entertaining.
Which was fortunate because the rest of the show was not. Failing to embody the raw, emotional honesty of a concert and lacking the clear story of a theatrical narrative, I Think I’m Falling falls mushily between concert and play. If the piece had maintained the simplicity of its opening, it would have had much more potential for success. Starting with the simple image of a metronome in a metal lunchbox centerstage, the first two performers emerge from backstage with guitars, slowly plugging them in to their amps, seemingly delighted by the resulting scratch of electrical noise. The two performers make the metronome’s click their percussion as they start a simple, but groovy vamp-like jam. Actors filter out one by one, standing within one of Dabdoub’s painted chessboard squares, staring out at the audience with comical expressions, showing off their unexpected costumes. But after this, all semblance of fun, clear abstraction falls away and the audience is left with a flaccid, mildly present, uninteresting story. Actors are clearly playing ‘characters’ depicted in Prince songs, but what is not so clear (or so necessary) are their responses to one another. Characters regularly express admiration/love/disdain for other characters, but the responses offer no information to the audience; it is an acting school exercise onstage. Lacking the musical integrity of a live concert, the piece is more like a high school Prince revue than anything else.
The high school-level production quality is largely due to the performances, many of which are unspecific and weirdly guarded. But then there is Georgia King. A strong performer, she generally excels in any role she’s given, drawing in the attention of the audience rather than desperately and pathetically reaching out for it. King has an unusual, though not at all unpleasant, voice; one can tell that she is concerned with far more than merely ‘sounding good’. King is fearless: her facial expressions are over the top, her body moves freely. Though costumed as a terribly provocative waitress, she never indulges in her own attractiveness. On the contrary, she is unafraid to be a clown in hot clothing, which makes for a hilarious and unsettling performance of The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.
The more successful numbers in the show are those like King’s Ballad of Dorothy, the numbers that, in line with a major goal of the production, find a way to theatricalize the emotional essence of a song rather than simply reproduce it poorly. The number Hot Thing is another of these. Hot Thing is terrifying and humorous, screechy, tense, intimidating. The song concludes with a collective nails-on-a-chalkboard vocal fry and scream uttered by the whole cast; instruments slide up and down; drums roll; voices rise and fall and scrape inhumanly. The arrangement and interpretation of the song are utterly bizarre and unique, and yet capture something of the aggressively sexy Prince original. Another exciting arrangement, the most successful in the show, is Housequake. John McClean rips on the drums, while the cast slides in and out of a tap number. Yet, it’s not a tap number; the formation of the dancers is loose and free. The tap shoes serve as rhythm alone, feeding in and out of the drums and in and out of the cast’s shouts as they jump around the stage and jam. And this time, for the first time in the show, the collective energy is truthful. The shouts of support and excitement, which in every other number were uncomfortably actor-ly, seem to come out of a group of performers having a blast onstage. The cast is in its element and is having fun; thus, it is a delight to watch and a respite amidst innumerable conventional and boring choral arrangements.
Musically, I Think I’m Falling falls apart. This musically-reliant piece meant to showcase and challenge ETW students is irresponsibly chosen for a cast largely made up of non-musicians. Pitch is a mess. There is never a sense of groove, of tight ensemble work or togetherness. Many cast members play instruments, but too many at a beginner level. Out of this chaos shines Jake Brasch, a solid keys player and a heavenly tenor. His voice on Toni Mitchell’s ballad Case of You is gentle and lilting, and his classical training is evident, yet Brasch also comfortably navigates the blues/rock realm, with a clear, healthy tenor belt. Best of all, Brasch is an anti-actor, one of those who allows a delicate smile and truthful soul to tell a story, devoid of forced character and feigned emotion. Brasch’s style is outwardly the opposite of King’s eerie clownlike one, yet both are exciting and appropriate interpretations of character in this Prince concert-world. Other performers succeed in moments, but no one with as much consistency as Brasch or King.
The tragedy of I Think I’m Falling lies in one line of Richard Armstrong’s director’s note, which proudly reads, “I told the cast that my first priority was to celebrate each one of them in the fullest way possible.” Ironically, the cast appears pushed beyond their limits, out of their element, humiliated rather than celebrated. Armstrong, a fulltime ETW faculty member and expert on vocal technique ignores his role as teacher, allowing students to sing past their physical limits into evident vocal tension, and past their stylistic strengths into weak, empty imitations of pop and rock singing. Co-director Jonathan Hart Makwaia is also disappointingly hands-off. One of Makwaia’s previous NYU pieces, Ovid in the Dark, featured incredibly strong vocal composition and technique, manipulating the voice to become both concrete and abstract sound design and storytelling. Yet this piece includes a majority of weak, uninteresting vocal arrangements, indicating nothing but Makwaia’s lack of instruction as, undoubtedly, most students would have been new to arrangement and composition.
I Think I’m Falling entirely lacked a sense of the gestalt. The story, perhaps tied loosely around actor Ian Lockwood’s character, was vaguely present. Performance styles were inconsistent from actor to actor and song to song. Luckily, the piece was made tolerable by Daniel Dabdoub’s eye-catching and fun design, whose disparate good-and-evil, high-and-low fashion elements were barely out of place in his trippy, Tim Burton-esque world. Thanks to sparkly makeup and a good performance here or there, remarkably, I made it through alright.