Valentine’s Day 2019 may be history, but the romance continues over at Queensbury with the world premiere of For Tonight, by Spencer Williams, Shenelle Salcido and Whitney Rhodes, with music and lyrics by Williams and Salcido.
Inspired by journals belonging to Williams’ great-great-great grandfather, the story begins in Wales, 1832, when a young boy, Haydon Parry, befriends a group of Romani. He connects with them through their music, which they share with him, and they even loan him a guitar. When Haydon finds that the village wants them to leave, he (with just a little help from his siblings, Thomas and Nettie) convinces his father to let them stay on their farm.
The sweet story ends here, as we find that ten years later, the three Parry children live alone, their parents long deceased from an illness that swept through the village. The Romani that Haydon knew are long gone as well, believed to have perished when someone set fire to their vardos (wagons). Even the guitar long ago gifted to Haydon has been missing for the last decade, until Nettie finds it in the barn. Though Haydon is excited to see it again, oldest brother Thomas is in charge, and he has forbidden music in the house. A home should have music, argues Haydon. Thomas replies that a home should have a mother and father. Unable to live in these lifeless, unhappy conditions, Haydon is inspired to leave for Liverpool, where he meets Mirela. Mirela is a Romani, and though she resists at first, saying she can’t be seen with a gadje (outsider), once she catches sight of the guitar – with her family name – she agrees to meet him at sundown the next day.
If this sounds like a set-up for a star-crossed love story, it is. But more than that, For Tonight is a family drama, and a strong ensemble piece with a strong set of songs. Music coordinator Jonathan Craft, who also conducts a band of eight (including himself on piano), does wonders with Williams and Salcido’s songs, which are brought to life by an amazing group of performers.
The cast, directed by Marley Singletary, is strong across the board, with Nathan Wilson, as Haydon, at the center. Jennifer Barrett’s voice, like a siren, lures Wilson’s Haydon out of the one bedroom he shares with Winn in Liverpool, and it’s only the first hint at the wowing she’ll do later, and especially during “One Step (Don’t Forget Me).” Wilson and Barrett share in some of the production’s most beautiful songs, such as the titular “For Tonight” and the soaring “Home,” sung with Adam Gibbs (Thomas) and Teresa Zimmermann (Molly).
Gibbs and Wilson join together for an emotionally charged duet, “Wait for the Morn,” while Zimmermann impresses on “Don’t Go It Alone,” ending with some Mariah Carey-esque whistle notes.
Though Kristina Kennedy (Nettie) sounded a little flat during a duet with Wilson (“Stay”), she later showed off her pipes with no problem in “All This Time,” cementing her status as the heart of the show.
But the song most worthy of a download is “Away,” which kicks off the show. For Tonight is at its best with the larger ensemble numbers, which often include feet stomping and hand clapping. “Come Along” and “Keeping Us Alive,” which uses buckets to great effect, are just as infectious.
Rounding out the cast are Nick Szoeke and Holland Vavra, and a group of young performers. Szoeke is a strong paternal presence as Mr. Parry, and smarmy but benign as Winn. Vavra tries on a few hats, too, introducing the lovely lullaby (“Suo Gan”) motif as Parry family matriarch, Anne; and as a put-upon waitress at a Liverpool pub and the at-first-standoffish Mrs. Conlan.
Major Tarwater, as a young Haydon, displays a strong voice during “Away,” and leads the pack of young actors, which includes Adam Kral, Betsy Anderson and Madeline Ashby.
As much as the music works, the lyrics don’t always. Lines like “I hear music and it rushes through my skin” is both trite and little off, and “It’s 3 a.m. now and I make love loneliness” is a bit much. And it should be mentioned that the sound was uneven at moments and dropped at times or didn’t kick in soon enough. This included losing the start of “Little Secret,” and any missed second of Zimmermann is regrettable.
Bethany White’s choreography further enhanced the production, and the choreography for the Romani ensemble, which includes Jordynn Godfrey, Jayson Kolbicz, Malik Cole, Preston Andrews, Gia Martinez, Kierra McKay, Carian Parker and Andrew Zapata, is a treat. The group often moves together as one, swaying sensuously. It works often, but slipped into chaos several times.
The set, by Ryan McGettigan with props by Eileen Dyer, is itself a blending of locales, which flow into each other effortlessly throughout the production. The unifying element, as Mirela’s family name – Kascht – would suggest, is wood. The tables, chairs, wheels, crates and posts are all wood, and even the stage is doubly framed in thick wooden beams. The wood also hints at Trelawnyd and the Parry family’s rustic farm life, while the netting that decorates the set and hangs in four panels as a backdrop hint at Wales and the docks of Liverpool. The earthy color palette that dominates the stage is also reflected in Kristin Knipp’s costumes for the Welsh characters, which lets the Romani costumes pop. They are rich in color, patterned, embroidered, layered and wrapped. The prop that brings everything together is the guitar, which shares that same wooden theme with a colorful fabric strap that connects it to the Romani.
Lanterns of different sizes and types hang down over the stage, and Christina R. Giannelli’s lighting designs build from there, incorporating the warm yellow light that sits like little fireflies above the stage into some strong uses of yellow light throughout the show and in some very pivotal scenes. It’s a strong contrast to the blue light that bathes much of the production.
For Tonight may not win any prizes for originality (you can probably trace the exact story without ever seeing it) and some of the lyrics are admittedly questionable. But it hits all the right notes, literally and figuratively, adding a fun, unique set of songs not always heard at the theater.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays at Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury Lane. Through March 3. For more information, call 713-467-4497 or visit queensburytheatre.org. $21-$85.
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