Sporting a strong cast, solid production values, and a well-constructed book, THE COBALTEANS explores themes of loss, guilt and coming of age. Creators Yianni Papadimos, Andrew Bridges, and Ben Chavez should be commended for going places many musicals fear to tread. Unfortunately, their efforts only partially succeed, as the disparate elements of the show don’t quite coalesce.
As the play begins, Davey (PJ Adzima) returns to the empty lake house that once belonged to his parents. He had many great times there before the untimely death of his older brother Gabriel (Andrew Bridges). A year has passed since the accident, and Davey seeks to commemorate his big bro by bringing the old gang back together. Fun-loving Noah (Alex Walton) is always down for a party. Christian (Aleks Knezevich) tears himself away from his settled, married life and makes it to the gathering. But there’s one member of the crew who’s MIA. When Mike (Nicholas McGovern) finally overcomes his reluctance and drags himself to the house, it’s clear that he is not okay. Through flashbacks, songs and dialogue we find out what really happened on the night Gabe died – and whether the tragedy will push the survivors closer together or tear apart the bonds they once shared.
The score, reminiscent of the male ballads that populated the poppier end of the alternative charts in the 1990s, has some good brooding numbers. Lyrics-wise, though, they lack specificity. There’s some sloppy rhyming (“fates/mistakes”, etc.), but more importantly, the songs largely don’t integrate with the story. The end result is that the show feels more like a concert and a play sharing the same stage, rather than a fully-realized musical theater piece.
Putting minimal elements to maximum use, Ethan Andersen’s autobiographical song-collage captures both the fun and the frustrations of the creative process. Eric (Andersen) has a burning desire to write a great musical. Finding a subject, though, is no easy task. Like most writers, Eric has been admonished to “write what you know”, and sets about trying to musicalize his real-life experiences. To get an idea how the songs will sound, he conjures up three imaginary performers: Perky Izzy (Katie Emerson) likes big upbeat numbers that allow her to bounce around the stage. Affable Ian (Matthew Summers) is open to almost anything (especially if it involves kissing Izzy). But Susan (Nicole Dalto) is a different ball game. She’s the voice of resistance, steering Eric clear of clichés and pushing him to be honest about his life. Unable to silence her, Eric delves into darker parts of his psyche. His love affairs have not had fairy tale endings, and his relationship with his single mother is already rife with tension even before their hometown of New Orleans is devastated by the hurricane. Reluctant at first, Eric soon realizes that delving into uncomfortable territory is the only way to make art of any lasting value.
Andersen takes the craft of songwriting seriously. His lyrics are clean, expressive, and well-tailored to their melodies. And though the story is simple, the emotions it explores are complex and ambiguous. Director/Choreographer Charlie Johnson keeps things humming, and the energetic cast nails the comic beats and heartfelt ballads with equal skill and conviction.
Happiness is hard to come by in minimum-wage America. Yet hope and dignity still prevail in the tiny trailer park Katy (Emma Stratton) calls home. Thanks to her son Sam (Matthew Miner) and her mom Amanda (Stacia Fernandez), Katy has a fulfilling home life. She’s not so lucky when it comes to men, and rather than settle for another deadbeat, she’s decided to put the whole dating thing on hold. Likewise Guy (Derek Carley), a loner carrying the baggage of some unspoken trauma, comes to the park seeking solitude. Good luck with that. Curious Sam wastes no time getting up the new stranger’s business, and sexy Flossie (Jacqueline Petroccia) begins comparing this Guy to the guys who cross her path (versatile Maclain Nelson in a double role). Like a Greek chorus, neighbors Freddi (Maya Landau) and Ali (Alex Lanning) are always on hand to provide commentary. It’s not hard to predict how this story will end, but thanks to a George D. Nelson’s nuanced book and Jordan Kamalu’s lively country-pop score, the audience has an enjoyable time watching the two shell-shocked leads overcome a host of obstacles and give love another chance.
Unlike the many shows that merely ridicule the “trash”, who live in rural poverty, SINGLE WIDE offers a refreshingly compassionate (though by no means humorless) portrait of working class Americans. Director/choreographer Jeff Whiting strikes just the right tone, leading his actors to balance realism with the bigness required for the show’s impassioned numbers. Scenic designer Jason Ardizzone-West and lighting designer John Demous juxtapose the grit of rusty mobile homes with the lyricism of starlit open skies. Sarah Cubbage’s costumes embody the characters’ agendas and enhance the show’s color palate, while music director Alan Schmuckler delivers the score with punch and soul. The one area where there’s plenty of room for improvement is in the lyrics department. The songs are deftly interwoven with the plot, but they are so awash with false rhymes that the lyrics seem out of keeping with the show’s overall level of professionalism. A bit of fine tuning would allow the numbers to land even more effectively, and help push this remarkable show towards the mainstream success it deserves.