May 16--Spinning Tree Theatre serves up a classy production of Michael John LaChiusa's "Hello Again," an American musical that embraces sex like few others.
LaChiusa based his piece on "La Ronde," a play by Arthur Schnitzler from the early 20th century that addressed the way sexual attraction transcends class boundaries. The Austrian playwright's work has fired the imaginations of European film-makers and English-language playwrights ever since, in part because Schnitzler's structure is easily adaptable -- and maybe simply because sex sells.
The original material does have a nice clockwork symmetry in its depiction of a series of casual and not so casual sexual encounters. A hooker picks up a soldier. The soldier then beds a nurse. The nurse in turn sleeps with a college boy. The college boy has an affair with a young wife. And on it goes in a circular pattern until the prostitute of the first scene reappears in the closing minutes of the play.
LaChiusa kept the basic structure but made a fundamental change: Each encounter is set in a different decade, beginning in 1900. That keeps the action in "Hello Again" unpredictable, and it allows LaChiusa to borrow inspiration from diverse musical sources, including silent film scores, swing, Top 40 pop and disco.
To be clear, LaChiusa isn't lifting musical styles in tact and forcing them into his show. Rather, each genre is a point of departure. LaChiusa's music is anything but predictable.
The Spinning Tree show, directed by Michael Grayman and Andy Parkhurst, brings together some of the best singers in the local acting community backed up by an impeccable ensemble led by pianist Kevin Bogan. The pacing is crisp as we move from episode to episode, and Paul Tilson's lighting design helps with the shifting tone and scene transitions. (Gary Campbell's vivid costumes, by the way, make an equally important contribution.)
Much of LaChiusa's music is arresting. He has the uncanny ability to write unconventional melodies within layered arrangements that burrow into the listener's consciousness as effectively as any hook-laden pop tune.
Grayman and Parkhurst have cast the show unpredictably. Sometimes that's a good thing, but not always. To their credit, their main criterion seems to be the quality of the voices, which cannot be faulted.
Perhaps their most surprising choice was to cast Julie Shaw as the Whore. Shaw's a fine singer and excels at musical comedy, but here she brings dramatic weight to a role that defies our stereotypical notions of what a hooker is and isn't.
Some of the younger cast members make the strongest impressions. Jacob Aaron Cullum as the Soldier, Tyler Eisenreich as the Young Thing and Seth Jones as the Writer bring lithe charisma and tangible skill to the stage. Equally impressive are Shelby Floyd as the Nurse (Floyd has real star quality) and Stephanie Wienecke, who delivers an indelible performance as the Young Wife. There's a haunting quality to Weineke's work. She creates memories that stick with you.
Steven Eubank brings an innate goofiness to anything he does, but his comedic turn as the College Boy doesn't really dovetail with the show's overall tone. Jerry Jay Cranford, who specializes in larger-than-life performances and hammy comedy, seems to be straitjacketed as the Husband. Lena Andrews has some nice moments as the Actress and Charles Fugate brings his usual professionalism to the Senator.
This material grapples with sex, not just as a driver of human behavior, but as a force connected to our spiritual lives. Sex and love aren't the same thing, and one doesn't necessarily lead to the other -- except when it does. The actors keep their clothes on, for the most part, but the sexual encounters are staged with a visceral energy that doesn't leave all that much to our imaginations.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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