Last Friday night, when Cynthia Levin, the artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre, burst onstage to offer her customary opening-night remarks, she did so with even greater energy than is her wont. Talking up the 18-month collaboration that nursed playwright and composer Greg Coffin's Rightnextto Me from concept to 90-minute world-premiere musical, Levin, the show's director, rhapsodized about the sloppy give-and-take of creation.
Until that very day, she said with a laugh, Coffin was still bringing in new songs.
I started to have vague worries. Then, when Levin announced that we, the audience, were now going to be part of that process and that the show would almost certainly change further from what we were about to see, I worried with high-def clarity: Ah, hell, the show's not ready. There we were, anticipating that rare night of Kansas City theater when the show hasn't already been rattling around the culture for years. But instead of getting to sit back and enjoy, we were suddenly violating my number-one rule in life: Be part of as few processes as possible.
Off Levin bounded. Then, with a tenderly anxious vocal from Teri Adams and spare, stirring piano from Daniel Doss, the show was on. In the arresting opening number, Adams frets in her pajamas in a bed too big for her, aching for word from her husband, a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq (the stolid Jerry Jay Cranford). A siren sounds, gunfire spurts and Adams — whose piquant, sometimes childlike voice is equal parts sugar and vinegar — hauls true pain from her depths. Both scene and music are presented with deft emotional circumspection: Her fitful sleep and violent dreams are nothing new to her, so her song finds her outlining the hurt as much as succumbing to it.
A breath after that, Doss' trio tickles out a vaudevillian boogie, and Cranford is a nebbishy therapist complaining comically about his wife. There isn't a marriage counselor/Who'd try and counsel her, he sings. (Like many of Coffin's conversational lyrics, that sounds better than it reads.) That wife is Adams again, this time amusingly frumpy as a flight attendant working up the courage to take the red-eye right out of her marriage.
And then, just about the time everyone in the audience understands that this is a separate couple and not some flashback, dream sequence or meta-fictional freakout, Cranford is suddenly a mailman moping over the Mickey Mouse ears his wife forgot to pack when she — and their son — left him. And then Adams is a mother singing "You on the Starboard Side" to her daughter as they haul down snowy highways to Grandma's, where a new life awaits. The kid is strapped in the back, and a Happy Meal rests in the passenger seat. As Adams explains Mommy's all better now/But we had to tell him goodbye, the scene breathes with life. The hurt and optimism here come equally from Adams' wistful delivery and Coffin's words: His best songs are lyrically chatty and chattily lyrical.
The show bounces among these four stories a little abruptly and with decreasing confidence. A couple of times too often, Gary Lezak shows up, offering thematic weather updates from a center-stage screen.
We rejoin the Army couple with "Hold On," a complex, affecting song that unfortunately opens with a snaky "Arabian Nights" figure wrapped around the bass line from Horace Silver's "Song for My Father" (or "Ricky, Don't Lose That Number" or — ick — "An Innocent Man"). Their story gains momentum as intermission approaches. For a long stretch, as this couple separated by half a world duets again and again about how they never can get ahold of each other, the others seem forgotten.
By the act break, their story has resolved itself. That resolution is a muddle, though, a series of dream-state songs lacking the real-world specificity that makes much of what comes before so memorable. It's increasingly hard to tell whether this takes place in his mind or her mind or both or neither.
Until this point, I had forgotten Levin's introduction. After intermission, unfortunately, the truth became clear: This was a work in progress, one that, the night I saw it, climaxed far too early, stranding its characters in a final half-hour with no story left to tell. Having made their choices and suffered their losses, they have little to do but pass the time, narrating their feelings and reveling in their tics (rueful smiles for the mailman; solemn marches for the Army guy). Endings that first show came and went; by the real ending, I found myself wincing when the Army husband appeared, yet again, to remind the wife that he couldn't be there.
Ultimately, this draft of Rightnextto Me stands as a powerful demonstration of the values of pacing and dramatic agency. At its best, it reveals — in rhythm and melody, in voice and action — the space between people, whether that space is the size of a planet or a fingernail. At its worst, it concerns time more than space — as in, yeah, I know you characters are going to find the strength to muddle on, but really, how much longer is this going to take?