The plot is silly and hard to follow, but who cares? James Levy has created a bath of aural joy, put it in the hands of some gifted musicians, and engaged some first-rate performers to sing the hell out of it. Thank you, brother Levy.
The silly plot is this: Joan (Emily Webbe), one of the world’s great rockers, has used her fabulous wealth to broadcast a video during halftime at the Super and Rose Bowls in which she urged people to abandon competition for cooperation. Wouldn’t we be embarrassed for all the starving children if we had to explain ourselves to a visiting race from another planet, she asked (musically) in the video. Not surprisingly, the audience – having just spent the last hour drinking beer and watching twenty-two men hammer each other into oblivion – was not responsive. This spectacular failure has left Joan doubting her sanity, and when she gets a phone call from an actual extraterrestrial visitor (Avianne Washington) she decides to check herself into a mental hospital. There, the head doctor (A. Thomas Oliveira), a cheery fellow with new-age pretensions, tries to run a group encounter with Joan, Tracy (Randall Holloway), who is an amnesiac prone to violence, and Anne (Arielle Goodman), who is so fearful that she would spend all her time in the fetal position if it were easy to sing that way.
Eventually the Visitors – Washington’s character and her Captain (Joanna Danielle) – arrive on the grounds of the mental hospital, deliver their message of peace and cooperation, cure Tracy, and invite some folks to join them on a trip back to their home planet. They live a thousand light-years away, but due to the effects detailed in Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, the trip will subjectively be of only a year’s duration. This is enough to sell the Earthlings, who hop on the ship after the Visitors have delivered their message of happy interdependence and cooperation.
Leave aside the question of why a great artist would check herself into a mental hospital after a business failure and what appears to be a crank phone call. Leave aside all the other doubts you might have about the other plot developments. When you come to this show – and you should – just allow yourself to be surrounded by Levy’s fabulous music, expertly pumped out by a tight four-man band (Levy, John Albertson, David Marsh and Francis Thompson). Celebrate the singing of Joan and her psych-ward buddies. Webbe, a young veteran performer who has been in productions at Washington Shakespeare, American Century, Forum and Adventure Theatre, presents herself here as a Pat Benatar-style rocker. Olivera, Holloway and Goodman all have powerful, beautiful voices and could sing backup to Benatar any day. A special note about Goodman: her operatic voice is an absolute marvel. I would not presume to advise Joel Markowitz, but if there ever was a Fringe Scene Stealer, she’s it.
The program identifies Tracy as an amnesiac, but Holloway plays him more as a schizophrenic who has been given too much Haldol™. It is a much more interesting choice (doubtlessly done with the approval of the director, who is also Levy), and Holloway does his work with precision and verge.
My only quibble with Levy’s musical decisionmaking is that he has not yet balanced the voices with the instruments. Poor Washington and Danielle are constantly submerged in the music, and even the powerful voices of the psych ward (with the exception of Goodman) are occasionally lost. Levy, who appears from his biography to have composed music principally for concerts, will come to learn that while the lyrics of most songs are secondary, the lyrics of a musical or opera are crucial to move the story along, and must be heard by all the audience.
One final important note: the air conditioning at the Warehouse is now fully operational. So what are you waiting for?
When ET Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Book, music and lyrics by James Levy
Produced by JamesLevyMusic
Directed by the cast, guided by Mr. Levy
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.
Did you see the show? What did you think?