If you get too weirded out by the second song in Signature’s newest world premiere musical, Midwestern Gothic, where out-of-work mechanic Red takes Polaroids of his stepdaughter Stina in “A Million Poses” while she eggs him on by asking “Do you think I’m pretty?” you may have signed on to the wrong musical. Because it only gets far weirder (and darker) from there.
This deepening darkness means that Royce Vavrek and Josh Schmidt’s book, lyrics and, music are delivering on their title: Midwestern Gothic.
Looking in from the coast, this musical is certainly Midwestern, with plenty of flannels, hard-drinking, curiously mixed dialects, and existential despair. But it is also non-specifically Midwestern: the setting doesn’t get much love outside of knowing that there’s a bar run by Stina’s mother and Red’s wife Deb populated by anonymous roughnecks awaiting strong drinks and unromantic love.
But the characters and plot are the joy of this musical, and they are Gothic to the core. From Morgan Keene’s Stina as not-so virginal ingenue to Sam Ludwig’s Anderson, whose simultaneously chivalrous and too-prurient interest in Stina identifies him as the tragically unmasculine romantic interest. Stepfather Red, played with admirable restraint by hustling Broadway actor Timothy J. Alex, slides easily into the roles of blocking figure, wicked manipulator, and forbidden, incestuous love.
Director Matthew Gardiner likens this new musical to the moods of Fargo and Misery
with a dash of Sweeney Todd thrown in.
From square one, these (and the rest) of these characters are doomed to terrible destinies in the inevitable downward spiral so deliciously typical of the Gothic horror genre. Give Vavrek and Schmidt credit, they know how to drive a plot along a road to destruction and how to start digging when they’ve found what could be the basement of depravity.
But, typical of horror stories, the journeys of the doomed and mad main characters are more the structural skeleton of the evening than the fun fleshy bits which are delightful to gnaw on all evening. Bobby Smith (whose bio lists 15 Signature shows, but feels more like 15,000 solid performances) and Sherri Edelen (who may be the most consistent actress on DC stages) give the evening the comic lift it desperately needs as hokey corrupt cop Dwayne and wayward wife and bar matron Deb. Rachel Zampelli puts her full acting chops into the relatively small role of upper-Midwest drunken seductress LuAnn and winds up getting a show-stealing moment of visceral comedy involving bodily fluids.
Smith and Edelen’s charm and Zampelli’s comedy work so well because of director Matt Gardiner’s sharp decision to premiere this play in Signature’s most intimate space, The Ark, whose seating capacity barely crests into triple digits. His subtle choreography (a Gardiner specialty) has the natural feel of straight play blocking and works well in the close up environment.
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closes April 30, 2017
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The tight space, however, isn’t always this show’s friend. The production design seems to strain against the shackles of intimacy. Lighting designer Colin K. Bills stuffs The Ark’s grid to the gills, and perhaps his push to perfection becomes the enemy of the simple good here. Particularly, sound and music were difficult beasts, which is tough for a mostly sung-through musical. The live band (which exhibits flavors of oompah with a tuba, accordion, banjo, and mandolin among other instruments) is miked extensively along with the singers, and the competition between the two makes the singers feel shouty and the instruments feel blaring. Add to that Midwestern Gothic’s tendency to employ Sondheim-esque overlapping and atonality, and you have a battle for attention that muddies the heart of the play: cutting storytelling.
This cacophonous problem is not a uniform aspect of Midwestern Gothic though. Especially later on, the entire creative team finds the heart of the play in a nice sequence of songs that lead to the climax. Relying on solo talent from Keene and Alex, the second half of this play cuts through the noise to become the deeply disturbing romance the text longs to be.
The measure of the attraction you have to that kind of disturbing romance will really be the metric for whether you enjoy this play or not. Deep down, if you want to see some people who have hard lives have the hardest time they’ve ever had, all couched in maddeningly-layered songs, you may have found your Holy Grail. Otherwise, you’re looking at a fresh and creepy twist on the horror musical, which is a fine way to spend an evening at the theater.
Midwestern Gothic with book by Royce Vavrek, Music by Josh Schmidt and lyrics by Royce Vavrek and Josh Schmidt. Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Featuring Timothy J Alex, Evan Casey, Sherri L. Edelen, Morgan Keene, Sam Ludwig, Jp Sisneros, Chris Sizemore, Bobby Smith, Stephen Gregory Smith, and Rachel Zampelli. Scenic Design: Misha Kachman . Costume Design: Ivania Stack . Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills . Sound Design: Ryan Hickey . Music Direction: Timothy Splain . Stage Manager; Julie Meyer . Produced by Signature Theatre. Reviewed by Alan Katz.