A well-sung plot isn’t just a matter of Convenience.

Sons and Lovers 

A well-sung plot isn’t just a matter of Convenience.

For several Decembers running, the Unicorn Theatre has done its damnedest to avoid shows with holiday themes. Convenience, Gregg Coffin's new musical, continues that tradition, but with maddeningly mixed results.

Well, maybe not that maddening. The show is worth seeing, primarily for its cast. Frustrating better describes this dense, sometimes lovely musical that zigzags from scenes of bruising emotional resonance to ones so cloying, you want to howl. One can excuse some of the glitches -- this is, after all, only its fourth full-blown production -- but other problems probably merit a complete overhaul.

Among the latter is the cipher of a character known as Vince (John-Michael Zuerlein), through whose eyes most of the show unfolds. Vince is 28, romancing a cherub named Ethan (Justin Van Pelt) and still in the closet to his mother, Liz (Donna Thomason). If he has any life other than being secretive, we're not privy to it.

Liz has a secret of her own. She's considering marrying her patient suitor, Abe (Gary Holcombe), but she's still on the fence. Coffin's setup is serviceable but murky. Much is made of the main characters' secretiveness, yet Vince and Liz apparently haven't talked in many moons anyway -- so what's the problem? There's tremendous potential in exploring this fractured picture of a dutiful single mother and her grown son, who have a stronger bond than either will admit, yet Coffin doesn't lasso it.

The show swings into focus, though, when Vince goes home for a weeklong visit. His agenda is really Ethan's ultimatum: Tell your mom you're gay, or I'm outta here. (I don't get the urgency of this, either, but it's not that troublesome.) Vince and Liz's reunion is severely strained, a nerve-racking scene that Zuerlein and Thomason play beautifully. What happens next is perhaps the show's most interesting twist.

Coffin boldly and cleverly splits the character of Liz in two. Young Liz (a powerfully nuanced Teri Adams) has just been dumped by Vince's father and lives among the walking wounded. In the title song, Liz and a teenage Vince go head-to-head in what is essentially a plea that they acknowledge their mutual abandonment, and it's delivered across the kitchen table with palpable rage.

Coffin's division of the Vince character, however, doesn't work for a couple of reasons, mainly because the younger Vince is played by Van Pelt. He makes such a strong impression as Vince's lover that it's disconcerting and a bit Freudian to see him play little Vince in felt pajamas. It also ushers in a wobbly subplot about the kid's fascination with outer space and the replaceable song "The Traitor King."

The first act climaxes with mother and son in full confessional mode and what is probably the best song in the show. "Un" is Sondheimesque in its wordplay -- every line begins with words such as undo and unsettle -- and, as sung by Adams and Thomason, it's undebatably moving. The second act arrives in a neatly wrapped package with plenty of warmth and some comic relief with Ethan and Liz's witty duet, "The Ogre and the Wife," but no surprises.

Convenience is almost 100 percent sung, a musical framework that is tricky to keep within the confines of reality. Director Cynthia Levin succeeds at the challenge -- the show, for all its inherent artificiality, is sufficiently credible, and the story is admirably involving. In this way, it recalls Falsettoland and last year's excellent Caroline or Change.

Although Zuerlein sometimes plays Vince as if he's auditioning for Rent, he and his co-stars confidently sell the show. And the design team is first-rate, especially Megan Henninger's sound design, which varies from the amplified slamming of doors to such tiny details as the crickets one hears when young Liz is calling Vince to dinner. Musical director Anthony Edwards leads two other musicians competently through Coffin's weighty score, even though it sounds prerecorded and, like Liz herself, a bit distant.

Postscript: University of Kansas alum Carson Elrod holds his own against such experienced thespians as Mary-Louise Parker in Reckless, now at the Biltmore Theatre in New York. Fans of Craig Lucas' black comedy (which the Unicorn staged a decade ago) will delight in director Mark Brokaw's whimsical yet gritty take on a show whose Christmasy opening quickly dissolves into Parker running from a hired killer.

Ripe for a Unicorn season to come is John Patrick Shanley's riveting new drama, Doubt. Tony winners Cherry Jones and Brian F. O'Byrne play an icy nun and the progressive young priest she suspects of being too fond of a 12-year-old boy. Set in 1964, the play intelligently debates issues besides pedophilia, including the Catholic Church's blind patriarchy.

The revival of Sondheim's Pacific Overtures at Studio 54 has more assets than debits, especially the closing song, "Next." And audiences should avoid the awful new musical Brooklyn at the Plymouth. It's a shameless, tuneless American Idol-like mess that believes sincerity can be molded from rancid cheese.


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