Where can you experience the world premiere of a musical with songs by a 4-time platinum artist for only $17 a pop? At Capital Fringe, of course, with Song Reader: the Musical, an earnest and poppy take on a classic-story combo from a fresh-faced young theater company.
Here’s the trick to that fantastic hook: music for this play has been developed by Clandestine Art’s Daniel Hornal and Harvey Droke from eclectic modern-day maestro Beck’s Song Reader, a 2012 “album” consisting of art and sheet music. Many artists have taken a crack at this bookishly silent album, from contemporary music legends like Jack White to hidden gems like Portland Cello Project, but Song Reader: the Musical is the first, and evidently so, attempt to bring everyone’s favorite Loser out of the concert venue and into the playhouse.
These origins classify Song Reader as a jukebox musical, that is, a set of popular songs (usually by one artist) reimagined as stage music or showtunes. This format challenges Librettist Droke and Director Clare Shaffer to make a compelling storytelling picture by putting Beck’s beautiful yet pre-formed parts of the puzzle in place, then shaping the story around those pieces so the whole picture makes sense.
They have gone with a combination of two classic plots. The first story explores the coming-of-age of a Soldier (played by Charles Tangires, whose voice and face are pretty in a boy-next-door kind of way), impressed into the military by his family and coming back from war a troubled man. His journey connects him with Ziz (played with convincing femme fatality by Christy Fischer), a stripper with a heart of gold, for whom soldier-boy naturally falls head over heels. They fall in and out of and in what passes for love in musical theater while weaving through Beck and Hornal’s hauntingly beautiful songs and score.
Song Reader: The Musical
Produced by Clandestine Arts
Details and tickets
The songs really are the stars here, as is appropriate for a jukebox musical, though they obviously don’t inspire the instant recognition typical of the genre. Hornal chooses a combination of bass, piano, violin, woodwind and percussion, eschewing Beck’s usual reliance on guitar and synthesized beats. Though the performance I saw had some technical difficulties with sound, the brilliance of the music and the lyrics shown through, supported by the young voices in the cast. I can only imagine how well it would do sans technical roughness.
Some of this musical has non-technical roughness though. The cast as a whole conveys their raw talent and enthusiasm for the project, but that talent is still definitively raw. Most cast members are single threats: great at acting, singing, or dancing, but not in combination. Shaffer does a good job of casting and directing them to their strengths, but sometimes these holes become unavoidable.
The biggest roughness comes with the principal challenge of the jukebox musical: smooth plotting. The temptation is to stuff as many songs as possible into the musical, given the quality of the music. The adaptors of Song Reader gave in to this temptation, and the play suffers as a result. There is a noticeable lack of reprises (just one used as a finale), which keeps it from feeling like a whole piece of work, constantly calling back to distinctive melodies and reminding the audience of the character’s arcs. That lack also makes the songs generally less memorable and less emotionally effective, which is especially noticeable when a less lyrically sensical songs crop up in key plot moments.
The other result of gorging on Beck’s beautiful music is that elements big and small, like the Soldier’s love of an imagined Saint Dude or an Egypt-themed private stripper room, feel shoehorned in to excuse the odd content of some songs. Normally, odd song choices are par for the pop musical course, but in this particular case, the result is a long, notably un-Beckified final scene where the legion plot elements get resolved in a nearly Shakespearean deus ex machina. The convolution felt unnecessary, and it made me want this musical to end 15 minutes before it actually did.
But that first 75 minutes contained some fine music by Fringe standards, a showcase of fresh local talent, and a collected group of top class music presented in a way that has never been seen before. So if you’ve always been a fan of Beck’s Song Reader or want a look at some new faces to DC stages, Song Reader: the Musical won’t disappoint.
Song Reader: the Musical Libretto by Harvey Droke, Song Arrangements by Daniel Hornal and Music by Beck. Directed by Clare Shaffer . Featuring Amy Alvino, Amy Maniscalco, Alex Lew, Bianca Lipford, Christy Fischer, Charles Tangires, Chani Wereley, Hillary, Keith J. Miller, Melrose Pyne, Ricky Drummond, Russell, Taylor Witt, and Will Mark Stevenson . Scenic Design: Jonathan Dahm Robertson . Costume Design: Joan Lawrence . Lighting Design: Colin Dieck . Choreography: Patrick M. Doneghy . Stage Manager: Olivia Viola . Produced by Clandestine Arts . Reviewed by Alan Katz.