Friday, February 14, 2014

WHEN WE MET, a new musical: playful, lyrical, heartbreaking

By Rob Hartmann
Photos by Jenny Anderson

WHEN WE MET, the new musical being workshopped at CAP21, seems to start off like a meet-cute romcom. Two fortyish singles - he a divorced professor, she a never-married holistic healer - have a disastrous first date which plants the seed for a relationship to take root.

In lesser hands, this premise might travel down clich├ęd paths. But WHEN WE MET, created by Julianne Wick Davis and Dan Collins in collaboration with the actors, Sally Wilfert and Michael Winther, brings the characters to fully dimensional life, in a story that is never predictable, but which feels completely truthful. The piece is genuinely funny, thought provoking, and deeply moving.

The book, by Dan Collins, sets the perfect tone as the characters try to relieve the awkwardness of the blind date – the way you can find yourself rambling, lost in an anecdote, as your dinner partner stares in polite puzzlement. Collins wisely gives the actors room to use their own natural razor-sharp comic timing: Wilfert is able to get laughs just in the way she picks up and sets down her menu.

As the story unfolds, moving fluidly forward and back through time, deeper themes emerge. Winther's Henry is a professor of quantum physics, who raptly explains the theory of "entanglement" - the way that two particles can become intimately connected, even at a distance. At home, Henry tries to lose himself in newly adopted Buddhism, struggling to free himself of painful memories. Even with his openness to the esoteric in his field of science and his spirituality, Henry still finds himself not quite able to take Maggie (Wilfert) seriously. Her particular field of therapy (which I won't spoil here), although he regards it with puzzlement, actually is more similar to his work than either one will admit. Both are trying to discover deeper truths by observation, to open up new channels of communication, to uncover the unknown.

The difficulty of communication with another person - even with someone you love and need - is expressed vividly in Julianne Wick Davis's music and lyrics. The songs explore the challenges of trying to make room in one's life for another - a toothbrush, space in the bed, space in one's soul - with precise, bittersweet lyrics. These are intelligent, vulnerable, emotional people. The music that Davis has crafted for this score is surging, rhythmic, lyrical. She is able to express finely-tuned emotional nuance, and powerful, driving need. This is music that the cast clearly loves to sing.

The score is played with great sensitivity by music director Charity Wicks on piano, along with Justin Smith on violin, Christine Kim on cello, and Mary Jo Stilp on viola. The orchestrations, by Michael Starobin and Greg Pliska, are full of shivering, delicate tremolo chords, capturing the hesitancy of the characters' shifting emotions.

Sally Wilfert and Michael Winther are Broadway veterans who too often have been given characters who are off to the side. Here, they are given full reign to create two engaging,complicated, fully realized characters. Vocally, they are a perfectly matched pair, whose voices meet in a crystal-clear blend. They both bring a relaxed charm to their roles – these are people you want to spend time with.

Ms. Wilfert, who at times evokes the don't-mess-with-me toughness of a young Barbara Stanwyck, gives Maggie a wry surface that conceals a wariness and weariness brought on by too many years watching over her younger sisters, while never having space enough for herself. But when Maggie is at work, reaching out to her uncommunicative clients, Wilfert finds a wellspring of joy which makes us understand how much she needs to be heard. Sally Wilfert's voice is a perfect, clear soprano which floats effortlessly from the lowest ranges to the highest belt; every note comes directly from her soul.

Mr. Winther gives Henry a sense of professorial authority and remove, as well as an impish charm. He is tasked with the evening's most challenging song, which comes when Henry reveals a private pain from his past. It's a moment which is set up and delivered perfectly: you sense what's coming but are still devastated by the revelation. Winther plays the moment completely truthfully, letting his pure tenor soar. Like Maggie, we are both moved and crushed; Wilfert's silent reaction is as powerful as Winther's delivery of the song. The emotion of the scene is cathartic and completely earned.

Eric Hoff’s direction gives the evening a clear, direct momentum. With only a table and two chairs, Hoff fluidly creates the multiple locations of Maggie and Henry’s worlds – restaurants, classroom, home, bed. The emotional peaks and valleys of the story are skillfully navigated – the energy continues to build throughout, keeping the audience constantly engaged.

The scenic design, by James J. Fenton, is, like the story, deceptively simple on the surface - walls and floor of blond wood, with doors and cabinets which open to reveal props as necessary. Fenton has given the floor grooves which, during blackouts, glow with light from underneath - icy blue, deeper red - just like the characters' past pain glows under their carefully controlled facades.

Brian Tovar's lighting design takes us nimbly from moment to moment, catching the pair in individual pools of cold light as they are caught in their own inner monologues. John Emmett O'Brien provides sound design which subtly creates the ambience of the restaurants Henry and Maggie find themselves in - including an aural representation of the Rainforest Cafe which got a laugh of recognition from the audience.

CAP21, with founders Frank Ventura and Eliza Ventura at the helm, has produced yet another example of smart, moving, genuinely affecting musical theater. Although it is a workshop and not technically a full production, this staging of WHEN WE MET is firing on all cylinders. CAP21 also produced Southern Comfort by Davis and Collins: although the two pieces could not be more different, they share an aesthetic of truthful humor, full-voiced musicality, deep emotion, and a desire to explore the vulnerability and human-ness present in relationships. This is theater that means something.

WHEN WE MET, A new musical

Starring Sally Wilfert and Michael Winther

Book by Dan Collins, music and lyrics by Julianne Wick Davis, in collaboration with Sally Wilfert and Michael Winther
Director: Eric Hoff
Music Director: Charity Wicks
Scenic/Prop Design: James J. Fenton
Costume Design: Kara Harmon
Lighting Design: Brian Tovar
Assistant Lighting Design: Scot Gianelli
Sound Design: John Emmett O’Brien
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin and Greg Pliska
Copyist: Salomon Lerner
Stage Manager: Catherine DiGirolamo
Production Manager: Becca Doyle

Presented by CAP21
Frank Ventura, Executive Artistic Director & Founder
Eliza Ventura, Artistic Director & Founder

Runs February 4 – 22 at CAP21, 18 West 18th Street, 5th Floor

Tickets and information:

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