In his interview with DC Theatre Scene, Ed Dixon, writer, composer, lyricist, and co-star of Cloak and Dagger, makes specific reference to The 39 Steps, Broadway’s newly classic minimalist farce, in his pursuit of a “zany, light, and fun” throwback film noir adventure. It’s a pretty high benchmark to set for oneself, and a high standard to which to invite comparison. Steps was breakneck, hilarious, ruthlessly efficient, and endlessly creative in its deployment of its tricks.
Adding the musical element to the farce makes this particular reviewer think of Lucky Stiff, a near-forgotten Ahrens and Flaherty classic, in which the pace of farce is manically (and seemingly magically) maintained in a series of character-developing, situation-enhancing, and action-driving musical numbers.
As soon as one thinks of musicals and film noir, yet another musical enters the mind: the all-time classic of pastiche composition and lyricism City of Angels, featuring terrifically authentic (and specific) musical homages to classic noir scenarios and characters, plus some of the entire canon’s greatest lyrics from David Zippel.
Point being, for such a simple little romp, there were forces out there making my expectations pretty darn high. All due sympathies to the new guy at the table.
What is Cloak and Dagger? It’s actually got a nice spine to it – starting in the run-down office of Private Eye Nick Cutter (Doug Carpenter), a whirlwind adventure through New York City begins with a simple visit from femme fatale Helena Troy (Erin Driscoll). Mobsters, strippers, and all sorts of unseemly folks (all played by either Dixon or Christopher Bloch) stand between Cutter and the missing Golden Venus.
All of this action takes place in a beautiful, simple sandbox of a space. Director Eric Shaeffer has a deserving reputation as one of the area’s best visual directors, and he does not disappoint in the vision he puts onstage with the work of a terrific design team.
Dan Conway’s set is rich in detail, a perfect little playground for a minimalist farce like this, with some fun little goodies hidden for specific moments and locales. A brick wall, three doors, a battle-worn checkered floor, two chairs, a couple signs, and a flown-in bar are all it takes to create any spot the story wants to go to.
Colin K. Bills carries a lot of the responsibility in fleshing those specific locations out, and his cues move us from place to place and specify environments with all the speed that the script allows. His color plot is also beautifully selected; the entire production has a “black and white” look befitting a film noir homage, while simultaneously allowing the presence of color to add a little musical flair.
Kathleen Geldard’s costumes, too, sell the period, but the real strength of her work is in the rigging. Ed Dixon and Christopher Bloch have to do a fair amount of quick-changing in the show, and it’s a testament to the designs of the costumes that they never look shoddy or slapdash. Credit is also due to the wardrobe assistant backstage, who is sadly not specifically identified in the program. Whoever you are, great work back there!
Rounding out the design are a nice array of sound effects and a strong balance from sound designer Lane Elms. The sound of the world is such a crucial thing to noir, and, despite the assertions of the Tony Award voting body, Mr. Elms plays an equal artistic role in creating it.
Four actors bring the whole shebang to life. Center of it all is Doug Carpenter, bearing the requisite square jaw and golden baritone one would expect in the hero of such a story. He is certainly anchor enough to hold the story together around him, but I was nonetheless surprised by his choice to portray the character as emotionally malleable and easily flustered when one perhaps expects a more stoic, straight-edge fella to escort us through the action. Maybe it was meant to be a comment on that expectation, but that didn’t seem clear if it was.
Erin Driscoll, fresh off of being the best thing about Signature’s Threepenny Opera, slips nicely into the red dress and golden blonde of Helena Troy here. Steely exterior with a heart of gold, Troy is exactly what you’d expect from such an archetype, and Driscoll hits the character notes asked of her, and looks to be having fun doing it.
Strangely though, Mr.’s Dixon and Bloch, a pair of exceptional actors whose work I have several times admired, don’t seem to get the opportunity to play to the extent one expects from taking on six or so roles apiece. Mr. Bloch makes the most of an old-showbiz agent type, while Mr. Dixon particularly relishes a role as a lady of, ahem, particular talents, who has been around the block a few times, and has picked up a particularly salty vocabulary along the way.
This lady’s potty mouth is the highlight of bookwriter Dixon’s script, which otherwise has a couple of growth opportunities in future productions. One is that many of the characters fall into “now we’re in this ethnic neighborhood of New York, so let’s put on this hat and use this accent” simplicity and an over-reliance on drag (what seems like 75% of the characters asked of Mr. Bloch and Mr. Dixon are female).
CLOAK AND DAGGER
Closes July 6, 2014
4200 Campbell Avenue
Tickets: $36 – $104
Tuesdays thru Sundays
The other is that Composer Dixon’s songs always seem to appear right when the plot momentum starts to pick up, but most are of a “spotlight the new character” nature, rather than story-propelling. The songs, however, are attractively rendered by Jenny Cartney’s four-piece ensemble, and given period flair by Jordon Ross Weinhold’s snappy orchestrations. You’ve got four great musical theatre voices working up there with a talented band, but I nonetheless found myself mentally “checking off” each number as it came and went, and wanting the story to kick back into gear.
The specter of expectation proved a bit much for this reviewer to overcome, unfortunately. It’s a shame, too, because I think there’s potential in the concept, and Mr. Dixon’s enthusiasm for the period and the material does shine through. It’s the kind of piece that just needs the right angle to really come to life, and I believe that angle lies in the show’s developmental future (speaking of angles: if you do decide to check out Cloak and Dagger, do your best to score a seat in the theatre’s center section. Though staged in a 3/4 thrust, it appeared that some of the patrons in the side sections were craning and straining to see action staged along hard horizontal lines at some moments).
In the meantime, there’s some beautiful stagecraft on display from a top-notch design team and an eminent aesthete of a director. Those expecting a bit of dessert at the end of their 2013-2014 subscription should have fun, and there were certainly plenty of laughs from the crowd around me.
Cloak and Dagger . Book, Music and Lyrics by Ed Dixon . Directed by Eric Schaeffer . Featuring Ed Dixon, Christopher Bloch, Erin Driscoll and Doug Carpenter . Orchestrations by Jordan Ross Weinhold . Musical Direction by Jenny Cartney . Scenic Design by Daniel Conway . Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard . Lighting Design by Colin K. Bills . Sound Design by Lane Elms . Production Stage Manager: Julie Meyer . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by John Dellaporta.