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Theatre in Review: Evening 1910 (Axis Theatre)

Michael Sheehy. Photo: Pavel Antonov.

The mood is profoundly elegiac these nights at the Axis, where Randy Sharp and Paul Carbonara's new musical presents the experiences of some turn-of-the-last-century immigrants as if preserved in amber. With its view of a country being reshaped by its new citizens, not to mention labor politics and the rise of motion pictures, it's hard not to think of Ragtime, but the authors have no interest in what must have been the noise, crowds, and tumult of the time; the experience of Evening 1910 is rather like sifting through old sepia photographs, now faded, trying to discern what they looked like when new. There is some exceptionally lovely music to be heard here, but if this piece, a song cycle expanded from an earlier show titled Solitary Light, is to have a further life, it needs stronger characters and action, as well as a substantial rethink of its design.

The main narrative line focuses on Henry, just arrived from Ireland and in love with photography. He crosses paths with George Spencer, a theatre owner and producer, who wants to go into motion pictures. George has a sister, Evelyn, to whom Henry appears to be unofficially affianced, even though he keeps casting glances at a winsome heiress he sees surprisingly often.

Even teasing this much out of the story isn't that easy. The company tends to remain en masse, with the principals only gradually emerging from the crowd. Also, if Sharp and Carbonara's music often beguiles, their lyrics are often surprisingly vague, failing to tell us enough about the characters for them to have any reality for us. This is especially true of the many choral numbers, such as "Solitary Light", which amount to group ruminations on exile and displacement. ("Did you forget that it's an island/On this early winter's night beyond compare?/From the sea we're just a light that's shining/So brightly. Out there." It's nice, but no substitute for words that provide specific details of being brand-new arrivals in a strange new world.) The inclusion of such period songs as "Sidewalks of New York" and "A Bird in a Gilded Cage" makes for some evocative moments, but doesn't bring us any closer to the characters. The absence of a book, which might have provided the important narrative connective tissue, is felt deeply here. As the scene shifts from Spencer's theatre to the heiress' mansion to a park and city streets, one waits in vain for something to bring these people together in a meaningful way. Evening 1910 is an extreme exercise in mood, of emotion recollected in such tranquility that there's no air for drama to breathe.

Sharp, who also directed, has made certain problematic design choices. Chad Yarborough's set is basically a bare stage with signs to denote each location; the period details are found in Karl Ruckdeschel's period costumes and a variety of props, including plenty of suitcases. (There's also a striking moment when the stage is filled with old-fashioned Mutoscopes, in which one watched one-reel films for penny.) One can barely make anything out, however, because of David Zeffren's lighting, which deploys a smallish rig mostly at side angles to create meticulously conceived silhouette looks that line the actors' faces in darkness. (This may be the only musical I've ever seen in which an actor steps out of the chorus and into total gloom.) There is also an upstage wall of lights that, when used near the end, manages to obliterate the company altogether. None of this is an accident -- it has clearly been worked out in detail -- but it strikes me as a terrible mistake. In the early sequences, thanks to the generalized lyrics and overall absence of light, I struggled to stay awake. I know that the title is Evening 1910, but the electric lightbulb was in general circulation by then and it would be awfully nice to make use of it.

There are other plus factors. Steve Fontaine's sound design, along with some very discreet amplification, includes a number of subtly wrought effects, including the clatter of the Mutoscope, and, in the theatre, the sound of coughing and one pair of hands clapping, evidence enough that live performance is on the way out and movies are on the way in. The entire cast sings beautifully, especially Michael Sheehy as Henry. The four-piece orchestrations have a lovely, lambent quality as well.

But there's a fine line between the melancholy and the sleepy, and Evening 1910 crosses it far too often. There is work of much quality here, but the creators currently don't have the right frame in which to present it. -- David Barbour

(9 May 2016)

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