*Critic’s Pick: Trevor Bachman [Table and Chair Take the Air]

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The genre of music theatre has met its redeemer, and his name is Trevor Bachman. A young composer as well as music director and performer, Bachman eschews cookie cutter song structure for a uniquely fresh sound. Yet the novelty of Bachman’s sound is achieved sans highly intellectual abstraction. The result: an inescapably visceral body of work that prefers genuine storytelling to empty belter ballads. Bachman’s 10 minute Table and Chair Take the Air, a musical adaptation of a poem by Edward Lear, proved to be a tremendous crowd pleaser at Boxed Wine Productions’ “Uncorked: a New Works Festival.” The festival featured several smart new pieces including Kaela Garvin’s wonderfully bizarre satire “Imelda’s Children,” but Bachman’s Table and Chair takes the cake, proving itself worthy of much more than a festival of workshops in a 99-seat theatre in Queens.

Table and Chair opens resplendently, with a driving, deeply exciting tenor line and accompaniment. This tenor is the character of Table (Zachary Infante), on a bright, steaming day, moaning aloud to his friend Chair (Andrew Martin), “I am so deathly hot, how are you not?!” Overwhelmed by the sensation, Table screams, which is in actuality an expertly sustained high C that melts into a chocolate-smooth and very difficult vocal run. Moments like these are a trademark of Bachman’s: virtuosic tidbits of musicianship so grandiose that one laughs at how perfectly they fit into the action of the story. And virtuosity is in plentiful supply. Bachman floats amongst several styles, one minute soulful pop-rock, the next a jazzy gospel sound, and all of it smooth. But it’s the difficulty of this young composer’s vocal writing that puts him at the forefront of the next wave of music theatre. Bachman writes for expert singers. His harmonies are fresh and sexy, and certainly challenging, well outside the harmonic sound of most musical theatre pieces. Plus, he is one of few composers to notate vocal runs in their entirety, runs that are both rangy and highly specific, yet incredibly satisfying. Above all, Bachman has an acute understanding of the human voice and its boundaries, its possibilities, and the different character inherent in each of its registers. Hence, Bachman’s writing can purposefully live at the edge of the voice, placing melodies and harmonies at the highest peaks, the places where the voice nearly cracks and is at its most vulnerable. The resulting sound, so raw and desperate, sends a physical chill through the body. Unlike the typical music theatre belt, normally slapped on the ends of songs as an egotistic show of talent, Bachman saves this vocal technique for his stories’ most emotionally charged moments, almost as a stand-in for a scream or wail.

Bachman, like any good music theatre composer (though not like most), favors story over spectacle. And in Table and Chair, like all of Bachman’s pieces, the story is remarkably simple, though not simplistic. Table and Chair is a roller coaster ride, sweeping the audience along in its constantly driving momentum. Bachman excels at the one kernel of writing (and adaptation) technique that so many writers fail to learn from Sophocles and Shakespeare: argument-based, action-driven dialogue. Bachman wastes no time with empty language, and as a result, his pieces are- literally- constantly entertaining. And this clever adapter’s clear storylines are only bolstered by the soaring emotion of his music. Table and Chair blazes with so much joy. This is not just joy that we watch actors pretend to feel in a brightly-lit ensemble dance number. This is palpable joy that the audience directly experiences in shivers up the spine. The play is as devastating as it is enlivening, diving just as deep into pain as it does humor, with just as much reverance and time.

Bachman’s enchanting, idiosyncratic music obviously contributes to the emotional reaches of his plays. But the key to Bachman’s success, and what separates him from some of his predecessors and many of his peers, is sincerity. Here is, finally, a young artist devoid of irony, of sarcasm, of insult, and of apathy. He spins his tales with the innocence of a children’s author, yet their deep poignancy is all-too-appealing to adults. The Table and Chair production team is a perfect match for Bachman’s vibrant authenticity. Director Ryan Amador tells Edward Lear’s story of a table and a chair who learn to walk with physicalized animation. Table, Chair, and their friends are brought to life with a delightfully tragic, incredibly funny clown-like performance style. Infante’s and Martin’s bodies morph magically like cartoons as their rigid Table and Chair poses crack, warp, and stretch into walking beings. The awkward first steps of these astonished furniture friends bring gleeful audience giggles. Collective heartbreak takes the room when Chair fearfully reassumes his wooden rigidity. By the end of the our fable, an adventure completed, exhaustion droops into the faces of Table and Chair, who yawn with adorable sagging mouths and wilting eyes.

The two actors’ physical lives are consistently specific and larger than life thanks to Amador’s imaginative eye, but the performances are expertly developed by Infante and Martin. These young men are not the standard fare of musical theatre. These are fearless, vulnerable actors who happen to also have uncommonly capable voices. Infante and Martin dive fully into every moment, with full sincerity and zero actor ego. The two are exquisite clowns, but they are actors too; when Chair loses Table and withers in fear, tears glisten in his eyes as well as ours.

And of course, one cannot ignore the divine voices of every member of Bachman’s cast, including Bachman himself, who appeared in a small role. Any actor who can conquer Bachman’s intricate runs and soaring vocal heights is automatically talented. But this cast (particularly Infante and his limitless tenor range) is exceptional. All five of these singers, including Stevi Incremonia and Gerianne Perkins in smaller roles, have full, healthy, soulful, flexible, pop/rock/music theatre voices that garner far more emotional response than their weaker, less daring counterparts on Broadway. Plus, unlike so many singers in theatre, Infante and Martin especially seem to understand the voice as an emotional channel, ever marrying the depth of the story to the quality of their sound. This fearless musicianship draws an uproarious audience response, as it undeniably did at Boxed Wine’s festival, where audiences were far more vocal and engaged than I have ever experienced in a theatre.

The brilliant, 10-minute kernel about Table and Chair is actually part of a larger work of adapted Edward Lear poetry put to music, which comes highly recommended, even to those who think they have sworn have music theatre forever. This piece, called Coromandel, makes its full-length premiere at Dixon Place on July 29th, 7:30 PM. Or catch excerpts from the show (as well as some of Bachman’s other work, MT and otherwise) at Joe’s Pub, 7:30 PM August 12.

Not Your Average Downtown extends a special thanks to Boxed Wine Productions for doing the admirable and facilitating the work of friends.

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I Think I’m Falling

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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.

Pop Roulette

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Last Saturday, I rolled into the PIT ready to see some comedy. A lightup board outside the theatre proclaimed the evening’s lineup of sketch and improv comedy acts. Inside, a rowdy throng of theatre-makers and comedy fans chattered loudly at the ever-crowded bar. Amidst the drunken buzz, I seated myself for sketch troupe Pop Roulette’s weekly show.

Pop Roulette, devised by a team of unusually strong performers, is a musical sketch show with a cultural-satirical bent. Once their show begins, I find myself the singular sober member of an audience full of drunk twentysomethings, laughing perhaps a little overzealously at almost every punch line. The comedy writing is quite hit or miss; at least a third of the sketches in the set fell somewhat flat. Some were over-the-top, some uselessly crude, others predictable or overly-spelled-out: the usual pitfalls of comedy.

However, that’s not at all to say that there weren’t several shining moments. In a favorite skit of mine, an actor is seated at a restaurant with her boyfriend, distressed over being told to lose weight for an audition. Resigning herself to a diet, the couple’s tiny, bitchy waitress approaches and recommends the french fries, followed by, roughly, “I eat them every day. They’re like my guilty snack.” Quips like these are a specialty of Pop Roulette, the subtle, rarely addressed moments of New York life, from the ‘sexy’ club girls struggling in their stilettos, to the middle-class, Whole-Foods-going gay always seen wearing one (or three) thick circle scarves.

Another strength of this ensemble’s is music composition. The group’s original musical numbers are explosive oases of performative energy. The melodies are clean, thematically appropriate, and appropriately ironic. And like the best musical comedy writing, the punch lines are worked seamlessly into the structure of the songs. The closing number, an uproariously funny spoof of young professionals in New York City’s Murray Hill neighborhood, shows off well the group’s clever lyricism; with bugged out, deranged eyes and choppy, Frankenstein-like choreography, the group chants to the music, “I LIKE TO RUN. YOU LIKE TO RUN TOO. LET’S LIVE IN MURRAY HILL.” They perfectly capture New York’s upper middle class, making for a relevant, hysterical closing number.

Though Pop Roulette addresses several of the political and cultural items that one might expect from a sketch troupe (the Oscar contenders, Hilary Clinton, Glee), the ensemble is best when they stick close to home. In general, the strongest pieces are those like Murray Hill that detail the quirks and annoyances of 20-something life in New York. In another solid ensemble sketch, the group runs out, chants “STUFF! STUFF! ‘90s STUFF!” and begins to list in rhythm beloved television shows, music groups, and consumer goods from the decade, a beloved pasttime familiar to anyone raised in the 90s. However, the group’s list is disrupted by one person’s repeated contribution of newsworthy disasters from the decade, which the group humorously rejects each time. This sketch is simple and smart in its pop culture subversion, undermining the tender, consumerist love of the 80s and 90s that is rarely criticized beyond the realm of hipster silkscreen hoodies. Thus, in several sketches does Pop Roulette fit the bill of a successful satirical sketch troupe.

However, where the group is truly unique is in its fierce ensemble of performers. While some of them are more accustomed to comedy than others, it’s evident that many are powerful actors and singers on their comedy off-nights. Amanda Shechtman is one of these. Shechtman, in a pre-filmed faux documentary, plays a dysfunctional, fictional Adele fed up with motherhood. The sketch itself is alright; we watch baby-abusing Adele in her home environment, singing re-written versions of her billboard hits. What’s impressive about the skit is Shechtman; even through laughter it is hard to overlook her impressive voice as she sings circles around Adele at her own songs. Suffice it to say, Shechtman also pulls off an admirable celebrity impression, capturing the essence of Adele’s soulful vocals and accented English. Another company member of note is Lauren Ireland, a remarkably genuine, incredibly animated comedian who nearly steals the show each time she appears. Sadly, this solid actor had very few major appearances, but was a crucial addition to the ensemble regardless; it is impossible not to watch her when she is onstage.

Truly, though, each Pop Roulette performer has evident talent. The ensemble prizes tightness and clarity, two qualities so often missing from sketch comedy shows. Though every skit may not impress, the group promises ample laughs and a night full of energy.

Grab a beer and laugh with Pop Roulette this coming Saturday, 9:30 PM, at the People’s Improv Theatre, 123 E. 24th St. Get yo’ tix: https://www.facebook.com/events/510159949024169/

Or, just facebook stalk. https://www.facebook.com/PopRoulette?fref=ts

The Undiscovered Countries Festival

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I often find myself lamenting over the lack of artistic community in the Big Apple. Tales of Hemingway’s Paris and Warhol’s New York taunt me with visions of tabacs crowded with writers and and warehouse walls lined with silkscreen. I’m sure those good old days were not the collaborative bohemias that sparkle in my imagination. Yet I can’t help but yearn for a creative community, one eclectic and unpretentious, exchanging ideas and cigarettes, paintings, songs, scripts.

One Monday night a month, at the Undiscovered Countries Festival, I can live my dream. This so-called “infinite festival,” founded by Joe Faustine, puts up an evening of brand new work one Monday night a month, at a hipstery joint in Bushwick appropriately called Goodbye Blue Mondays. Anything goes in this festival: musicals and readings, solo works and music, all of which span a wide range of style and talent. But in that regard, it is a true festival of new works, offering a home to both the rough and the refined. Submission is simple, devoid of politics, and the whole thing is free of charge for performers and audience alike. What more can you ask?

The Infinite Festival’s history is a true Brooklyn dream. Faustine, a Bushwick resident, noticed a great stage in his local bar and asked for one night a month. New art gets a free venue; a small business makes money on a Monday night: the perfect arrangement. And this bar is an ideal spot for an evening of casual performance. The walls are covered with strange sculptures and vintage bric-a-brac and the beer is cheap enough by New York standards. It’s chic. It’s grungy. It’s the New York Parisians dream about (take that, Hemingway).

What makes this festival incredible (and sadly, what makes it unique) is its complete lack of arrogance. There is no critique, analysis, or judgment clouding the air. Rather, Undiscovered Countries is, at heart, a gathering of friends with a desire to witness and celebrate one another’s newest works-in-progress. The Undiscovered Countries team of organizers (Barbara Begley, Kaela Garvin, Joe Faustine, Kirsten Frisina, Amy Yourd) has started something truly unusual and laudable amongst New York’s fiercely self-promoting artistic landscape. Rarely does one encounter young, start-of-career artists willing to invest time in cultivating the art of peers. Yet these five theatre makers, understanding the value of this exchange, have the humility and maturity to pull it off.

Check in with the festival’s facebook page for next month’s lineup. Or, submit yourself…

https://www.facebook.com/undiscoveredcountries

Shaina Taub [The Daughters]

 

If you haven’t yet experienced the writing of Shaina Taub, well, it’s time, and here’s your chance: a workshop of Taub’s first full-length piece, The Daughters, performed by current NYU students under the leadership of director Sam Pinkleton. This badass musical tale of Zeus’s three daughters and their ultimate rejection of immortality has already gone through several different incarnations, including one at CAP21 in New York and another at the Yale Rep. This stage of The Daughters‘ development is by no means the most emotional or intricate, but it’s a good chance to hear some of the show’s strongest numbers simply presented in a very bare-bones workshop performance.

Taub’s voice is a necessary one in the musical theatre scene, drawing inspiration from the world of music, rather than the world of theatre. So many musicals, labeled “rock musicals,” “folk musicals,” “rock operas” or whatever else somehow come short of the genres of which they claim to be a part. Time and time again, they fail to escape that ever-recognizable musical theatre sound, whose lame imitations of instrumentation and vocal quality force it to forever only hint at songs we actually hear on the radio.

Taub is one of the only writers I know to evade this phenomenon. How she does it is simple: she just writes music. Taub writes good songs first and worries about the story and characters in workshops like this one. And because she’s a veritable singer-songwriter outside the theatre, the music we hear in The Daughters is real soul, recognizable indie rock, blues, and R&B that we’d buy as such.

Beyond stylistic fluidity and mastery, the most exciting element of Taub’s writing is powerhouse vocals. I don’t mean a final high F heralding the end of a belter ballad. This is ferocious 4- or 5-part harmony written in the rafters of the female voice, not slammed at the end of a song to impress, but scattered throughout, used, appropriately, as an expression of human need/desire/desperation/joy in musical bursts that are loud, resonant, piercing, and immediate.

Taub’s instrumental writing certainly deserves mention as well. Taub blends fierce contemporary vocal styles with detailed, unexpected nuances in instrumentation. This workshop may only have keys, a piano, and percussion, but there’s a lot going on in that small band. The most notable example is Aphrodite’s chilling second ballad “Brave Enough.” Aphro (Sylver Wallace) riffs delicately around her jaded self-depracation, but the accompaniment tells a different story. While Wallace spends much of the song in her vulnerable female falsetto, the keys plod along darkly and heavily, revealing the ever-present current of terror that courses through a young woman facing unexpected motherhood (as well as unexpected mortality). The percussion, however, is what makes this song so uncomfortable. Percussionist Hiroyuki Matsuura utilizes several different pieces throughout this song and the show, but his eerie, jarring cymbal slices in “Brave Enough” are like musical shots of adrenaline. Fun instrumental details are peppered throughout the show, and tightly executed by both Matsuura and Trevor Bachman (keys/piano/music direction).

Old Daughters favorites from earlier drafts including “Brave Enough” and Athena’s rebellious “Child” steal the show this time around. It’s these tried-and-true numbers that carry the mystery, depth, and heart that was characteristic of the concert-style, more nonlinear previous incarnations of the piece. The goal of this workshop at NYU seems to be the development of a clearer story. While the workshop succeeds in this, the fascinating, loosely-tied-together, deep character analysis that was The Daughters, sadly, no longer exists.

The workshop certainly is a workshop in every sense of the word. It’s not terribly clean or tight. The students feel very young in their roles, which adds a dramaturgically intriguing immaturity to each of the characters, but also leaves one craving the adult darkness hinted at within the music. However, this is not true of actor Michelle Berry, a third year at NYU in the role of Artemis. Berry is constantly “on” and constantly aware of her body in space, which can’t be said of every young actor in this piece. Her dialogue is fierce and powerfully directed. She has an inherent, genuine sexiness and strength in this role, but none of the self-awareness or haughtiness that often accompanies those qualities. She’s simply a mature performer. In a particularly strong scene with the youthful Orion (Angel Lin), Berry says, “I can’t take care of you!” and in that voice you hear a woman wise enough to know she is too young to be responsible for another.

Each young woman, however, has at least one laudable moment of performance, and each one undeniably has an unstoppable voice.

This incarnation is indeed a mixed bag, but just remember it’s a workshop, jam out, and have fun.

The show runs through this coming Friday at Tisch School of the Arts. Tickets are probably limited at best, but even if the show is sold out online, it’s worth a visit to the theatre to try to get in.

Click below for tickets, dates, time, show details:

http://www.tisch.nyu.edu/object/dr_stageworks_thedaughters.html

Michelle Berry (Artemis) and Meagan Reyes (Athena)