I wept during the musical Kaleidoscope. Quietly, but involuntarily, tears welled up and just started flowing. What a time not to have a tissue or handkerchief handy. I cried for people I have lost, my mother in particular, but others, too. For family and friends I saw decline due to their health.
Why this walk down the memory lane of suffering and grief? Because when theatre rings with truth, when it peels away layers of the human condition, it is a powerful and cathartic art form.
Kaleidoscope is one such piece of theatre. Entertaining, yes, no question about it. Co-creators Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith have fashioned a story and score that engages from the first moment to the last. But in their new, one-act musical Kaleidoscope, Conner and Smith have also distilled in dramatic and musical fashion the essence of what it means to lose chunks of a person’s life while they are still trying desperately to live it, even as the shadows threaten to block out the light.
The conceit is simple but very compelling: a mature Broadway star mounts a one-woman show as a retrospective on her life spent in the theatre. Evelyn Thorne makes her grand entrance with a flourish, assuring the audience she is a seasoned leading lady with the talent, charm, and stage presence to bewitch any crowd. Evelyn’s opening number, “Find Your Light,” sets the tone for the evening: the stage star looking back on her career, with plenty of show biz imagery setting the scene..
The show’s title is first mentioned by Miss Thorne early in the show, not only for what a kaleidoscope really is, a toy filled with multicolored fragments that displays “an endless variety of patterns.” Evelyn got one as a present on for her eleventh birthday, a cherished gift from her musician father and jazz singer mother.
Conner and Smith’s book, music and lyrics keep the pattern motif alive throughout the musical’s 90 minutes. Moments from Evelyn’s performances and rehearsals, woven in and out, seen from different perspectives. The songs range from jazzy pastiche numbers (“I Wanna Big Daddy”) to sensitive ensemble numbers (“Places”), and a lovely lullaby (“Seasons”), as well as other. The musical numbers, even the one-woman show material, grow organically from the script, fully integrated, as with a Stephen Sondheim or William Finn musical.
At one point, Thorne declares to her director, “A blank script is a crime.” Oh, did she say a mouthful. As Evelyn works on her show, the reality sets in that the pages in her mind – memories of the past as well as her present – are deteriorating little by little. Episodes pleasant and painful, are seen in glimpses, but the lens grows progressively distorted. Older, yet still vibrant and willing to work, Miss Thorne begins to face the biggest challenge of her life: Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease, the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., as yet has no cure. More than five million American live with the mind-robbing condition right now; that number is estimated to grow to as high as 16 million by 2050. I am sure some of you reading this right now have members of your family who live with Alzheimer’s.
In Kaleidoscope, Evelyn displays the stages of dementia, and Conner and Smith’s theatrical handling of her decline rings with truth, from her first hesitant memory lapses, the middle stages of erratic behavior and not recognizing loved ones, to when the disease has taken full toll on both Evelyn and her family.
As strong as the Smith and Conner’s writing and direction are, the all female cast is impeccable. Young Sophia Mancone, who earlier in the Creative Cauldron season tore up the stage as the homicidal child star in Ruthless, brings maturity and depth beyond her years to her dual roles as young Evelyn and the aging star’s granddaughter. As Evelyn’s stage manager, and chief caregiver Monica, Catherine Purcell displays a soaring soprano voice and effective versatility called for by her role. As Evelyn’s director, Susan Derry makes a welcome return to the Creative Cauldron, having appeared in Conner and Smith’s previous premieres Turn of the Screw (2015) and Monsters of the Via Diodati (2016). Derry handles her role skillfully, balancing between professional detachment and personal involvement in Miss Thorne’s life and work.
closes May 28, 2017
Details and tickets
I suppose it is not a major spoiler that Monica and Olivia are also Evelyn’s only daughters; this raises the stakes of their involvement in her one-woman show and her harrowing condition. If Kaleidoscope has a life outside Creative Cauldron, I hope it works out that Derry, Purcell, and Manicone can move with it.
Which brings me to Evelyn Thorne herself, certainly a case of last but not least. Florence Lacey needs not “act” the role of a former Broadway star, since she is one herself. Lacey has been seen in a number of DC area productions, most recently Signature Theatre’s Titanic, and Eric Schaeffer’s production of Follies that went from the Kennedy Center to Broadway several seasons ago. She has also clocked more than 3,000 performances in the title role in Evita over the years, was in the original Broadway cast of The Grand Tour, and in two revivals of Hello, Dolly! starring Carol Channing. I mention more than a few of her credits to demonstrate the theatrical pedigree she brings to the Creative Cauldron stage as the seasoned Evelyn Thorne, a character that fits her like a glove.
Still in glorious voice, Lacey’s warm instrument is not only at home with Matt Conner’s tunes, she mines the lyrics for truth above and below the surface. A commanding presence and warm personality on stage, she makes Evelyn’s decline even more moving.
Lacey is in a way the raison d’être for Kaleidoscope. After her own experiences with her mother-in-law, Lacey suggested to Conner and Smith that they explore the subject of Alzheimer’s disease through a musical. Flash forward ten years, and here we have Lacey starring in their world premiere musical, part of Creative Cauldron’s series “Bold New Works for Intimate Stages.” It is a strong partnership, singer-actress and co-creators. This partnership and the story they are sharing deserves to be experienced far and wide.
As a new work, as a learning experience, as a piece of theatre that reveals what it is to be a human being facing incredible odds and struggling to find her light, Kaleidoscope wins on all counts. Anyone who has experienced a parent or partner slip away, from any condition, can relate. Sometimes we don’t want to face or remember such a loss. But the theatre is a place of healing, and a place of understanding, ever since the Greeks first stepped on stage in Athens. Pick up this Kaleidoscope and watch the patterns change and move. And don’t be surprised if you’re wiping away tears.
Kaleidoscope by Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith . Featuring: Florence Lacey, Susan Derry, Catherine Purcell, and Sophia Manicone. Set design: Margie Jervis . Costume design: Alison Samantha Johnson . Lighting design: Lynn Joslin . Music supervisor:Warren Freeman . Stage manager: Regina Vitale . Produced by Creative Cauldron . Reviewed by Jeff Walker .