What if a show could see itself? See and hear itself from the outside, supporting itself with positive and constructive feedback, forcing a mirror to its own problematic but promising life. Just like its characters are supposed to do. Just like we are all supposed to do.
This would be nice, if not for us in the gallery then for its own merit. Theater is a living thing.
For “Talk To Me Now,” the new musical directed by Randy Kramer and conceived and written by Theresa Quinn, who also music directs and stars, it would have proven as introspective an exercise as the show purports itself to be. Despite extensive development and workshop stages, this needs some more work.
It’s a bit simple from the outside, a show about two women in two centuries fighting against the oppressive patriarchal societies that are limiting, or eliminating, their options. It’s about choices, in the home and at work – and though not made explicitly clear, in a wealth of political circumstances, too. It gets more complicated the more you try to dig into it.
Renee Landrigan portrays German composer Clara Wieck Schumann, whose piano performances and compositions in the mid-19th century were groundbreaking. That she would fight for the right to perform in the same idealistic space as her husband, celebrated composer Robert Schumann (John Kaczorowski), was a triumph for that society, to say nothing for the gifts of her music. She was a trailblazer.
Quinn’s modern-day counterpart is a musician, too. She works bar gigs at night, aspires to a teaching career at New York University and cares for her ailing father (Robert Insana). Her plate is full but not fulfilling. Her father’s advancing Alzheimer’s puts her in the precarious situation of having to choose herself over her family – the paradox of which implies abandonment but which any psychologist or flight attendant would applaud for its sense of priority. A trailblazer in the making?
Their stories are nicely interwoven, with long discussions and brief moments layered on top of each other. There’s depth in their comparisons. It’s in the actual scenes that we run into trouble.
Kramer’s dialogue, arguably the weakest component in any of his original musicals, lets his characters down. His characters exist in a pedestrian, generic, vanilla talk bubble that makes no effort to distinguish itself from other writers’ characters, let alone themselves. Quinn’s performance – her biggest acting break to date, in my estimation – further cements the frailty of these lines. She gives it a cold line reading at best, as if in an audition. Nuances are exaggerated, declarations are weakened and everything in the middle is vapid. And she co-wrote it.
It’s too much of a distraction from her and Kramer’s noble vision to tell these compelling stories of progress and unity without conviction or soul, or originality. What’s more, is her character’s plight: as her story inches closer to its own obvious conclusion, it becomes clear that her constraints have little to do with being a woman. Certainly, her need to manage her professional and familial roles in spite of a society still unforgiving of that right is a post-feminist arch, and a reality for millions. But her biggest predicament seems to be that of her ailing father, which would tax and compromise any child. Her complaints may be valid and sourced from oppressive-like strife, but in comparison to her foremothers, it is not exactly the same struggle. Or, at least, we would not be led to believe it is.
Musically, we stray some more. The contrasting measure and rhythm of these two times are emphasized with the music of contemporary female singer-songwriters. In Quinn’s story, songs by Sheryl Crow, Shawn Colvin and Sara Bareilles are natural fits; in Schumann’s Romantic era, Gwen Stefani and Alanis Morrisette are a harder sell. Which doesn’t make it impossible to work. Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” did this brilliantly, where he understood the disposable merits of romanticized pop music, and never dwelled in it for more than three minutes at a time. Here, we sit in lukewarm pools of soul-shrinking theatrical readings of songs that were not meant for such literal narration.
It works in rare cases, like Stefani’s “Just a Girl,” which Landrigan nails thanks to Quinn’s smart new arrangement. Here, too, it feels like “Spring Awakening,” which gave 19th century German teenagers a microphone and a rock song to quell their puritan hearts. We get what you’re going for, but we don’t get it deep enough; you’re not letting us into its shell, only inviting us to ride the surface.
These are not poor creative decisions, but they are decisions that require more than what appears to have been a great first idea. The second, third and fourth iterations of that inspiration would surely have developed into something more layered, more intriguing and more relative to their lives and our own. Kramer’s theatrical instinct gains marked improvement here, though uninspired writing and lack of further editing squash this earnest idea’s opportunities.
“Talk To Me Now”
Two and a half stars (Out of four)
Presented through Aug. 17 by MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St., Snyder. Tickets are $41. Call 839-8539 or visit www.musicalfare.com.