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Pleasant Convenience

Does Stages' new musical live up to its potential?

Greg Coffin's Convenience is a pleasing new musical that's easy on the ears, lovingly performed and given a finely detailed production at Stages Repertory Theatre. However, merely being pleasant is a serious liability for something that shows so much promise. It still seems like a work in progress.

The show's premise is quickly established in the opening upbeat number, "One Small Step." A young gay couple, Vince and Ethan, move in together. While Ethan (Jonathan McVay) is excited that "one life is better than living in twos," Vince (Scott Sowinski) is cautious: "up to the door, but can't walk through." Meanwhile, Vince's estranged mother, Liz (Susan Shofner), is just as worried about opening her new door. Longtime boyfriend Abe (Thomas Prior) has proposed marriage, but she hesitates, just like her son. Vince is freaked out about telling Mom he's gay; she's freaked out about telling her son about Abe.

Repetitive and static, this double dilemma comprises most of Act I. Peppered throughout this two-note dramatic situation, however, are lovely pop ballads in wailing Elton John style, and lively patter songs ("The Revolving Door") with a definite Stephen Sondheim air. In a musical with almost no spoken dialogue, the most distinctive song is "Standing Still," Vince's nightmarish memory of the night his father walked out. With its jagged rhythms and rhymed couplets, the panic that Vince feels as his parents fight in their bedroom is singularly conveyed. "Late in the night, covers, slippers. I heard a fight, doorway, hallway. Bigger than before, tiptoe, listen. Hiding at their door, keyhole, peeking..."

What wears us down is the story's lack of convincing conflict and the book's incessant rhyming. Much of the time, Coffin's lyrics consist of the "June/moon" school, unvarying in their predictability, or awkwardly placed so they don't screw up the music's meter.

Way too much drama is wrung out of these situations, and it seems out of proportion in this day of same-sex Massachusetts marriages and reruns of Will & Grace. Scarred from his father's abandonment, neither Vince nor anyone else makes a compelling case that Dad's walking out had anything to do with Vince's paralysis to tell his mother he's gay. Contrary to what Vince says about her, Mom's a sweet thing, rational and endearing (especially as warmly portrayed by Shofner). When Ethan blurts out his confession, it's no big deal to her. She's more shocked that she didn't recognize it years before.

To compound matters, Vince and Liz have younger versions of themselves, who drag down the plot's momentum by singing about what we already know. As touching as these lullabies and memories are (and they're expertly sung by the exemplary cast), the songs move us not forward but sideways. Emotionally, everyone runs in place.

The pace of Act II picks up considerably, and Mom comes into the foreground. The songs are written with more propulsion and intricacy, such as the breezy swing of the quintet, "Love Has This Power," but the pedestrian lyrics don't improve. The Mom/Abe subplot becomes unnecessarily complicated when Abe gets his dream job and asks her to move with him to California. Ethan's fantasy villain, the Darth Vader-like Traitor King (a.k.a. Dad) gets the most haunting music. "Surrender" is a lush and dreamy anthem, unlike anything else in the score. This other subtext (with McVay as Young Vince in snorkel mask and Star Wars pajamas) is more padding; it would have been better to combine the acts to streamline these wayward plots.

Whatever the future holds for this pop-opera musical, it probably will never receive a more sympathetic production. With his smooth, satiny direction, Rob Bundy stays in the background and lets the music and performers take center stage. The quintet of singing actors shines amid Nick Phillips's creamy lighting, Boris Kaplun's vivid minimalist settings and Bernardo Siaotong's fashionable costumes.

Sowinski, so mesmerizing a few months ago as the blood-sucking hybrid in Stages' imaginative Bat Boy, colors in Vince's missing emotional blocks like an old master, then sings with all the force of a pop star. McVay, an asset to any musical, gives "pushy" Ethan a sensitive yet muscular center, and his surprise visit to "the ogre" in Mom's blindingly bright yellow kitchen is a comic musical standout. Shofner has an embracing maternal goodness that pours from her voice, while Prior transforms good, decent Abe into a recognizable Common Man. Coffin's musical line lies fairly high for Mary-Margaret Allen, as Young Liz, but her fresh, attractive stage presence easily trumps any minor vocal hurdles.

When the show ended on a recent night, a lady in front of me turned to her friend and said, "Nice. That was nice." It is the appropriately convenient word for this show. Nice.

 
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