Sound Advice Reviews
Quirky, Offbeat Little Musicals
"Good things come in small packages"? This can be true in the case of fun, small-scale musicals that often work quite well as cast recording listening experiencesmaybe better than the audio souvenirs of the giant shows where so much of the experience might be production values or dazzling dance. Here are two little oddball treats that deliver much to satisfy the ears and the imagination.
If it can be said that listeners might have a "crush" on a musical, it could apply to the truly cute score and performance of Bubble Boy. With teenagers as most of its protagonists, we quickly get past the concern that they might be portrayed in ways that plague some such productions that suffer from self-conscious and effortful characterizations that are condescending, unrealistic and out of sync, or use language choices that don't feel natural. Based on their own 2001 screenplay, composer-lyricist Cinco Paul, who co-wrote the dialogue with Ken Daurio, have the ear for this. A music team that includes Justin Goldner, Brent Crayon, Matt Hinkley, and Michael Holland brings high polish while allowing the score to still feel like a small gem.
Although Bubble Boy and its cast don't hesitate to go over the top, they know just how far over to go in order to make one smile rather than groan. Emotions and observations come off as sweet, the characters' limited life experience making them endearingly optimistic or innocently hopeful, but with enough wit and winking to keep things from being precious.
Affectionate throughout, things don't get stymied in tip-toeing with a political correctness agenda. The titular character's severely compromised immune defensiveness that requires Jimmy to live in a home-based physical protective germ-free unit is treated in a glib or matter-of-fact way, a joke many might pounce on as anti-Semitic stereotyping (in a spoken bit) zips through, and Jimmy is allowed to acknowledge hatred and wish to harm his rival in romancing the girl next door. In the brief song that names his potential victim, "It Will Be Mark," actor A.J. Holmes, who's been part of the gestating musical for almost a decade, displays one aspect of his gee-whiz freshness that never grates or wears out its welcome. Without resorting to fast-firing insults or employing the curse words that pepper the speech of many real-life teens, the proceedings don't eschew sacred cows. And that applies to the literal sense of the term, having a scene where while driving, a character whose roots are in India and whose religion indeed forbids harm to bovine creatures slams his vehicle right into one. The panic that ensues that just maybe the animal is instead "a gnu, a wildebeest, a bison, or caribou," wishing that "It's an Elk," is a whirlwind of hyperventilating frantic hopes aced by Nehal Joshi. Holmes' super-low-key spoken reactions, calmly stating variations of, "I'm pretty sure it's a cow" make for dry, amusing contrast.
Musical theatre veteran Alice Ripley, in good and strong voice, is a treat as Jimmy's passive-aggressively controlling mom, in the musical theatre tradition of those lioness types who who fiercely justify their parental overprotectiveness, like the ultra-religious mother of Carrie who wants to keep her daughter from socializing and having knowledge about her changing body, and the witch mother of Rapunzel who doesn't want her straying Into the Woods. The Ripley timing in machine-gun delivery of lines replete with blame-throwing and accusations is admirableand a hoot. As the woo-worthy neighbor girl, Caroline Bowman brings an opposite energy free of edge or negativity, singing with disarming openness.
The 23-track recording presents both brief numbers and brief appearances for other characters in packed, impactful moments that make strong impressions in their limited time in the spotlight. In that category, an entertained listener can only be left wishing there were more from Richard Kind as Jimmy's dad (he gets a lovely serious moment with "You Can See the Moon Today") and Gerard Canonico as the garage bandmate BFF of Mark, a role more prominent and quite well done by Matt Doyle.
Bubble Boy is a feel-good, life-affirming musical that makes its points and has us rooting for its "good guys" without ever sacrificing humor or tipping its hand. When it extends the idea of being in a risk-eschewing, thoroughly protective bubble into being a metaphor for ways we all are tempting to play it safe and keep life and people at a distance, it feels inevitable and satisfying instead of a weighty gimmick. This zestful recording is a pick-me-up, and I hope it will encourage theatre producers to pick up on it as a candidate for runs long enough for audiences to discover and delight in. I'm hoping to be in one of those seats.
Here's a piece where we hear everything the protagonists say to each other and to themselves, even uncompleted thoughts, often as quick-paced running commentary. One remark or observation can arrive almost on top of the next, like a traffic jam of words and reactions. Listening to the quirky, somewhat unsettling, but ultimately endearing, Zipperz is like being trapped inside somebody else's head. More to the point, it is like being trapped in two people's heads at the same time, as their thoughts and spoken observations overlap and crash into each other. To let your mind's eye see this see-sawing budding romantic relationship of two insecure workmates makes for a voyeuristic voyage. The two characters (that's the full cast) ruminate and react in fits and starts, self-interrupting, self-deprecating, self-conscious and apologetic statements. Snippets, snippets, snippets! If you're a skillful multi-tasker who regularly and successfully juggles in-person and online conversations, going back and forth with lightning speed, able to always retain what was said a minute ago in both, then you're more up for the challenge than those not so adept at split-focused attention. I found myself enjoying it, admiring the aural dramatization of that reality of simultaneous existence of the inner monologue and out-loud conversations. After all, we do it all the time, whether talking to others or ourselves. Here it all hangs out. And it's both sweetly fun and somewhat tedious minutiae in the baby-step-by-baby-step journey from initial attraction to awkward first date to follow-up encounters to sex to "now what?" decisions.
The piece was commissioned and premiered by The Oakland Symphony. Poet Dan Harder's bursts of words (which he calls zippers) capture the man and woman's insecurities and justifications in ways that ring true as they set up hopes and expectations, sometimes dashing them almost immediately. Sunny statements that start out oh-so-brightly are quickly dimmed with clouds of pessimism or resignation (felled by inertia, his post-date promise to call becomes "But I Don't Call") or qualifying and backtracking ("She's pretty. Well, pretty enough"). Wistfulness reigns. Millennial slackerdom and ambivalence with yearning for connection lurking beneath the affect are parts of their M.O. Giving up, then revving up to the old college try of the mantra "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" sometimes is the key.
Composer Nathaniel Stookey's musical choices are the understated magic that makes the whole thing work. He teases and pleases us with his terse tidbits of melody that fit each tight megabyte of stumbling, stuttering, sputtering thought or brooding mood. While we may be longing for more meals and fewer appetizers, the clever concept and execution for this unique style are satisfying if we accept the goal of making us as theatrical consumers necessarily "unsatisfied" with these golden crumbs instead of a banquet. In short, it works.
The talented Mr. Stookey also is the album's main producer and provides a synopsis. His special brand of music is handled with cool crispness by Donato Cabrera conducting what's called the Magik Magik Orchestra for which Minna Choi is Artistic Director, and features Jeff Mars (drums) for percussive punch. The physical CD comes with a nifty illustrated booklet bringing us into a comic book world for a suitable visual parallel experience. It's all rather like following two people on Twitter, albeit obsessively and microscopically.
Manoel Feliciano (so memorable as Tobias in the John Doyle-directed Sweeney Todd revival, and on Broadway last year in the short-lived Amélie) is sympathetic as the hesitant romancer afraid to take the first or second step for a first or second date. The character's shyness makes using a gentle voice right and appealing. Thus, there's less danger of the flip-flops or emotional firewalls coming off as harsh or bland. He sounds totally naturalistic in the role (he also played it in the live performance of the 40-minute piece). Robin Coomer brings a nice strength mixed with insecurity which makes for a quite equal balance between the two. While her voice evidences some warmth and power, she serves the project by keeping it wholly conversational.
One should never avoid the "elephant in the room" in such enterprises: Here it is that these two actors work so well together in order to have the split-second timing and control while achieving (ironically?) the mission of believably portraying two people who are rarely in sync. That they are actors playing actors is another "insider" point of interest. While it can sometimes feel snail-paced as the characters drag their feet just to dip toes in romantic waters, once things get going, Zipperz flies and pulls you in, if you'll surrender to its claustrophobic and odd but familiar mini-world.