DC Music Theatre Workshop makes its debut with Family Portrait, a musical written by British composer Theo Jamieson and being fully staged here for the very first time. The show is a collection of musical snapshots of a prototypical family. At opening, we see a picturesque arrangement of father, mother, daughters, and son, which proves – of course – to be filled with emotional turmoil and bitter truths.
Their story is told through a handful of songs arranged for a trio of voice, violin and piano. Each spotlights one particular family member’s struggle to come to terms with life’s realities. It’s a nice structural premise, and it does its job well, even if at times it begins to feel redundant.
The cast does a fine job at finding and filling the near-archetypical roles of this “normal” family unit, but their strengths are never fully advantage of. Too often does it seem like characters just don’t have much to do when singing a song. The stage pictures that are created are pretty ones, but they never evolve into anything other than pictures. The scenes are static, certainly a deliberate choice in a show whose central metaphor is a portrait, but their stasis has only so much charm. And eventually, the songs – with little action to sustain their just-too-long running times – start to feel less like family snapshots and more like family chores.
As little as the staging does to create a dynamic piece of theatre, the real problem here is the text, which offers little opportunity to develop any interesting ideas to their fullest. The script can never quite decide whether it wants to be a universal story about what it means to be a family or a deeply personal tale of broken characters and the ripples they leave in each others’ lives. By trying to be both it ends up being neither. It doesn’t have enough heart to be personal, and it doesn’t have enough brain to be universal. So instead it’s caught in the middle, losing any stakes or chance at empathy.
That doesn’t preclude Family Portrait from being good, or at least having good moments, but it means those moments never lead us anywhere and eventually waste away. Take, for example, a notable highlight of the show, “There’s No Such Thing As Magic,” a song delivered beautifully by Katie McManus in which a mother has to explain to her young daughters the realities of the world. It’s a bittersweet number about the truths and lies we tell to our children, and how they mirror the ones we tell ourselves. The parallelism is fascinating and reaches for something truly resonant, but the end of the song shifts focus inwards, to the specific lives of the characters that are too archetypal to seem really human.
We are left with ideas without weight and beauty without clarity. When the show draws to its swelling conclusion – an absolutely gorgeous number entitled “Home” – it’s a moment of triumph but also one of regret. As all five voices come together in wonderful harmony, one can’t help but wish that this finale was bolstered by a more consistent build. It is a great song that highlights how not-so-great most were leading up to it. It tries to be cathartic, but when there’s no tension leading up to it, it merely seems nice.
And sometimes “nice” is okay, especially for this first foray into DC Music Theatre Workshop’s mission to explore the boundaries of music and theatre. For all of its faults, Family Portrait never feels like an imposition, merely an experiment that doesn’t quite pan out. Its short run time and pay-what-you-can price tag make it a little sliver of theatre that doesn’t come out perfect, but is just sweet enough.
Family Portrait ran four performance, August 1, 2, 8 and 9, 2015.
Family Portait . Music and lyrics by Theo Jamieson . Directed by Zach Roberts . Featuring Kristin Cardinal, Madeline Cuddihy, Harv Lester, Katie McManus and RJ Pavel . Lighting Design by Cassandra Kendall . Scenic Design by Zach Roberts . Costumes, Hair and Makeup Design by Amber Gibson . Stage Managed by Ashlyn Thompson . Produced by DC Music Theatre Workshop . Reviewed by Sean Craig.