Last night’s performance of West at On the Boards was sold out; the box office opened at 3 p.m. today for the final show in the run, so if you’re meaning to see it, strike while the iron is hot. Otherwise, fans of the band “Awesome,” returning for their second or third viewing, are going to geese your seats.
Fans of the band also will know what they are in for, musically, but it’s unlikely that you could anticipate much else. Collaborating with “Awesome” are director Matthew Richter and scenic designer Jennifer Zeyl (who, full disclosure, has the office next door and made me promise to see the show–she’s not the boss of me, I was going anyway, so there, integrity intact). The result is aptly described by Anne Blackburn on OtB’s blog as a “feral musical,” and the production value would make Michel Gondry weep.
The stage is filled with packing crates of various sizes and (it turns out) function. They’re the cultural containers, you might say, while the totemic suitcases are personal. If you enjoyed playing with blocks as a child, you’ll end up wanting to take Zeyl’s crates home with you. They glow and bounce, open up on dioramas, blind you with light, join up into boxcars, and release music. Actually, one releases the history of Western development.
West has faults–or fault lines, if you liked the disjunctures–that keep it from cohering into a narrative: its episodic scenes are comic, goofy, mournful, elegiac, confessional, enigmatic, even violent. The band trades a suitcase and a pilgrim’s cape (it’s a sort of “
Man Traveler with No Name” look) but it’s a mostly formal exercise, since you don’t get to “know” any of them. I felt at times that I was watching seven Buster Keatons trying to out-poker face the other, though Basil Harris tells a good joke.
Director Richter joked to ArtZone’s Nancy Guppy that his job was herding genius cats, and my sense of the show’s weakness is that it’s born from a decentralized artistic vision. To use a more germane metaphor, there are parallel tracks of artistic intent that diverge, sometimes offering contrast and perspective, and sometimes leaving you stranded back at the fork.
It’s hard to reconcile a scene with a magical packing and unpacking of a suitcase, played for chuckles; with a central, trapped-in-molasses moment that presents a horizon glimpsed through the swaying of boxcars; with the post-scalping consciousness-sharing of John Osebold. The lightning-on-the-plains flashes of light that signal a new scene come to fill a deus-ex-machina role, only instead of offering resolution, they forbid it.
Technically–not that it’s a competition–the harmonies of “Awesome” surpass those of the Fleet Foxes, for precision and for pure musical whiz-kidditry. But they’re really in an arms race against themselves; after a few brushes with the band, you begin to expect them to fashion some intricate, fugal rounds out of a saw, scissors, and mallet. The downside is that they perform like whiz kids, too, which is to say that they can offer their talent or jokiness or ideas instead of something banal like feelings.
If a Broadway musical reaches over the footlights and into your pants by the first minute of the overture, “Awesome” signals to you at arm’s length, and I wondered at times if an audience was really required. That’s meant as conjecture, not a criticism. If a campfire doesn’t care if people are around to enjoy it, that doesn’t mean we won’t still pull up a seat and stare into the flames.