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Theatre in Review: Songbird (59E59)

Eric William Morris, Adam Cochran, Kate Baldwin. Photo: Jenny Anderson Photography

Songbird kicks off on the highest of notes, as Kate Baldwin, as aspiring singer Tammy Trip, delivers a powerfully rueful ballad titled "Small Town Heart." ("Gonna keep on driving put the pedal to the floor / Gonna keep on praying for an open door / You can't lock this small town heart up anymore.") We're watching her Grand Ole Opry debut, and Baldwin, skilled artist that she is, nails the song's tone of defiance and disenchantment while allowing Tammy to blossom into a star before our very eyes. It's one of the strongest openings to any musical this season.

But, like many a country song, or a bad boyfriend, Songbird quickly breaks one's heart -- with clanky dramatics borrowed from none other than Anton Chekhov. Songbird is a countrified version of The Seagull, and, in the hands of lesser talents, it proves to be overly rich in fats and strangely tasteless. After the initial number, the action jumps ahead twenty years; Tammy is the Arkadina figure, a Reba McEntire-style belter whose best days are behind her. Her Trigorin is Beck, the much-younger musician and producer to whom she so desperately clings. Her Treplev is Dean, who, instead of trying to invent the drama of the future, pens indie rock-flavored ballads that earn his mother's scorn. The Nina is Mia, the daughter of local Baptists, who dreams of success as a singer and who makes a desperate play for Beck. The Masha figure, Missy, doesn't say that she is in mourning for her life, but she does dress in fashionable black, cultivates a sullen attitude, and yearns hopelessly for Dean. Instead of a country estate, the action revolves around the bar run by Soren, Tammy's older brother, who suffers from lung cancer. The rest of The Seagull's infidelities and longings are embedded in the supporting characters.

The idea of setting The Seagull to a Nashville beat isn't entirely bad -- country-western music, with its unappeasable yearnings and star-crossed lovers, could provide a modern way of expressing Chekhov's themes. But it would probably take a far more ambitious and original approach to make it work, one less slavishly devoted to the original's character and plot structure. Songbird is weighed down by the effort of the book's author, Michael Kimmel, to transpose every detail of the original play into a new context. The result is often airless, an act of pedantry rather than a vital work of drama. By the point that Dean surprises Mia with the body of a dead bluebird, it becomes clear that Songbird hasn't been written so much as curated. These characters are not country folk trapped by provincial circumstance and Victorian morality; they're contemporary types living in a major American city, not fertile ground for Russian angst. I kept wondering why at least two of the characters simply didn't get divorces.

Also, Chekhov's X-ray eye for his characters' follies created some of modern drama's most complex characterizations. Songbird is an old-fashioned "chop-and-drop" exercise, removing much of the original play's texture to make room for numbers that do little to advance the action. Lauren Pritchard's songs are technically skilled efforts that have a real Nashville flair, but because they represent pop tunes written by various characters, they often seem connected to the narrative in only the most general way. Much of the time Songbird resembles a jukebox musical filled with tunes you've never heard before.

J.V. Mercanti's direction has a start-and-stop quality, but the cast is filled with Broadway pros who can sell a number. Erin Dilly provides a full measure of sass as Pauline, once a singer and now an unhappily married bartender; she plays well with Kacie Sheik as Missy, her daughter, especially in a scene that makes clear that neither one has any use for her husband. Drew McVety is an easygoing pleasure as Pauline's extramarital playmate. Bob Stillman is likable as Soren, who declines shockingly between acts. (Hilariously, practically everyone warns Soren that his smoking is killing him -- all while guzzling whisky straight from the bottle.) Andy Taylor is nice to have around as Pauline's decent-hearted husband. Among the newer faces, Adam Cochran seems hamstrung by the role of Dean, and Ephie Aardema, as Mia, only comes alive in the scene in which she and Beck (a solid Eric William Morris) play a number together, striking a few sexual sparks in the process.

Baldwin shines in her numbers, but Tammy is strictly a road-show Mommy Dearest, a one-note harridan whose blatantly selfish, emotionally blackmailing ways would send any reasonable person running into the night. This is largely due to the script's infelicities: When Arkadina interrupts Treplev's performances with her loud comments, is in the context of a private performance for family and friends. In Songbird, Tammy heckles Dean in front of a paying audience; would she really expose her callousness to public view?

On the plus side, Jason Sherwood's set, a series of worn clapboard walls covered with lamps and lined with liquor bottles, has a nice old-time feel, aided by the subtle shifts in color temperature provided by Aaron Porter's lighting. Mark Koss' costumes are well observed, especially Tammy's designer versions of country-gal duds; Justin Stasiw's sound design is a tad on the loud side, but admirably clear.

In the end, Songbird is trapped in the shadow of its predecessor; compared to The Seagull, it is as watered down as a highball in a third-rate honky-tonk. -- David Barbour


(29 October 2015)

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