A Night of Night and Day
It’s not unusual for me to leave a production I’ve enjoyed with a bit of a crush. That’s part of the joy of plays, movies, TV, even dance in my opinion: someone you see grabs your eye and something they do captures your heart. Even though I’m a straight guy, my crushes aren’t always young women: I left “All Fall Down” on Monday with a little crush on Matt Shofner, both times at “Spring Awakening” I was enamored with the couple of Wendla and Melchior as played by Ali Thibodeau and Oliver Houser.
I took in Joe Jackson’s Night and Day at Richmond Triangle Players last night and came away with a new infatuation with Rebecca Muhleman, one of five very talented singers that populate Andrew Hamm’s world premiere brainchild. Whether standing stridently at center stage or bopping around seemingly overcome with love of the music, Ms. Muhleman is an electric presence in this so-called concert musical. Her shock of white blond hair, dramatic eyes, and imposing physicality are complemented by an expressive voice that adds all sorts of nuance to familiar JJ songs like “Dear Mom” and especially “Breaking Us in Two.” Her energy bubbled up and overflowed at different times, making her the engine that powered the action through much of the show.
That’s not to say she was the only shining star on the Triangle Players stage. All of the other singers – Augustin Correro, Keydron Dunn, Anne Carr Regan, Liz Blake White and Mr. Hamm himself – all had moments of star power in this production. I was most entertained by Dunn, particularly in his second act rant, “Cancer.” I was enthralled by White in the pensive “Why,” while also loving her great duets with Correro in “Real Men” and “Glamour and Pain.” Regan steps to the fore in “Love Got Lost,” a strong song that she infuses with passion.
It’s hard to know what exactly to call JJND – I guess concert musical makes sense, though the thread of something like a story here is not even as strong as other pretty loose concert musicals like “The Who’s Tommy” or Green Day’s “American Idiot.” I like the general premise – the “songwriter” played by Hamm seems to be imagining the characters in his songs, mostly people from the streets of New York, each with their specific quirks and vocations – White is a prostitute, Dunn a homeless guy, Correro an art student perhaps with maybe a night-time propensity for cross-dressing. As he writes their songs, he apparently wills them into being and we see their stories play out before us. Particularly with some of Jackson’s more compelling songs – faves like “Chinatown” or “Another World” – it’s easy to imagine the swirl of street life, the bustle of New York and the inherent drama of life there.
A few things hamper the show as conceptualized, in my opinion. One is that most of the characters aren’t give through-lines – Regan plays a NYC tourist but then reappears as a character otherwise undefined. You can kind of develop a full-fledged character for Correro but it’s not inherent in the material and it’s a bit of a drag to have to second-guess what the intention is. The other thing is that there isn’t really enough connective tissue to make the stories all work together. For instance, the songwriter and his relationship with his girlfriend (Muhleman) is encapsulated solely within “Breaking Us in Two,” a great song but not as complete as say Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” in terms of background, conflict and conclusion. I loved the scene but it didn’t make for a complete theatrical trajectory. The finale is ultimately a self-centered one: the songwriter finally gets his one problematic song to work – “Steppin Out” – which makes for a rousing conclusion but again, not quite a dramatically satisfying one in terms of incorporating any of the other stories.
Finally, there seems to be a certain urge toward completism that doesn’t necessarily serve the show. “T.V. Age” is a fine song and I loved the closed circuit broadcast accompaniment (could that coquettish little scamp be Annella Kaine???) but I didn’t see how it fit in this show with these characters. I understand the show spans two of Joe Jackson’s album but it’s somewhat arbitrary from a dramatic standpoint that all of the songs had to be included.
Still, if your expectations are set appropriately – a hot evening of cool songs performed by a kickin’ band – the performance is not lacking for anything. The addition of strings in the form of violin (played by Seamus Guy) and cello (Michael Knowles) is inspired and really raises the musicality to another level. I agree completely with John Porter that the percussion is often overwhelming and could stand to be scaled back, even though I loved the licks Adam Young was pulling on the drums and Jake Allard’s percussion – whether on congas or plastic drum – was energizing.
Probably most of all, Hamm’s perseverance in getting this world premiere up and running, then going the distance in delivering a thoroughly entertaining evening of music, deserves to be roundly applauded. The concept is inspired and the performances he and codirector Stacie Rearden Hall get out of their cast are fabulous. Richmond is lucky to have talented people like Hamm pushing the creative envelope, not to mention giving an old guy like me the chance to relive the joy of discovery of Joe Jackson’s stirring and sophisticated song-craft. Bravo, Andrew!