Middlebury, Vermont does not immediately come to mind when I think about theater. Nevertheless, it’s where I found myself Thursday night for a “world premiere” musical at Town Hall Theater. After Central New York’s endless winter, my family took a drive to someplace new.
Town Hall Theater sits on a hill in the middle of a friendly village surrounded by mountains and streams. We checked in to the Middlebury Inn, one of the oldest continually operating hotels in the country. We walked to The Vermont Book Shop, chatted with a smiling proprietor and walked out with an armful of books we never knew we wanted. (Take that, Jeff Bezos.) We wandered through Frog Hollow, crossed Otter Creek on the footbridge and explored the Marble Works. We enjoyed a delightful meal at Morgan’s Tavern, the hotel’s farm-to-table restaurant, with local beers on draught and a server who knew more than a little about Scotch.
My Post-Traumatic Cruise Ship Cabaret is a title that grabs you like click-bait; the show delivers the implied cheese, but surprises with unexpected heart and a touch of the surreal.
Town Hall Executive Director Douglas Anderson, a man who seems to love his job, greeted the packed house warmly and encouraged us to drink: “You’re on a cruise ship, after all.” Several cocktail tables were arranged in front of the stage, complete with faux candles.
The piece was co-written by Dana Yeaton and Vanessa Dunleavy. Dunleavy also stars as Vivi Donovan, a blond-wigged, chippy late-night lounge singer. She’s fabulous. Vivi’s left forearm is bandaged, and the opening number is desperately cheerful, suggesting a performer at the end of her rope. The cabaret framing device is gradually peeled open, as she reveals different versions of how she hurt her arm, and her intention to create a one-woman cabaret that matters – indeed, one that might even save America (“which is very hard to write.”) Of course, this vision was conveyed by Janis Joplin speaking through a shower head, telling Vivi to “come back nude.” (The setup pays off, but not entirely as feared and/or hoped.)
What begins as a send-up of a tacky late-night cabaret becomes an absurdist comedy with unexpected emotional heft before everything turns left into surrealism (think sing-along TED Talk with a touch of Captain Phillips.) These twists wouldn’t work without Dunleavy’s vocal chops and subtle comedic acting. The opening parody is broad but never too much, and the audience reacted to every forced smile and (intentionally) tired joke. When she removed the wig (overheard behind me: “I was hoping that was fake”) and began her confessional, I was carried along, still laughing but unexpectedly moved. The songs were catchy and effective, supporting the mood changes. (My favorites: Sweet Songs About Nothing, the shows’s stand-alone hit, and There is So Much I Don’t Know, which makes great use of wordplay and reveals our heroine as a self-aware dim bulb – it’s when she wins the audience over.) I felt the show sagged a bit in the middle (it ran just under 90 minutes, no intermission) but it wouldn’t take much to tighten it up.
Although MPTCSC is essentially a one-woman show, director Ethan Bowen makes creative use of the band, positioned stage right. The trio plays the Boroshenko Brothers, a group of Russian exiles (banished for playing You’ve Got a Friend ironically). The idea that none of them speak English is repeatedly milked, but the joke stays funny because the musicians (Clinton Bierman, Peter Day and Jeff Vallone) intelligently underplay their roles, with occasional bursts of musical mugging. (Bierman and Day co-wrote the music with Yeaton and Dunleavy.) In particular, every time they returned to the same riff of insipid elevator music – the Boroshenko’s musical safe place – the audience laughed even harder.
I was disappointed by the sound and lighting, which might be excused as purposely mediocre, except there should have been a contrast between tacky bad and dramatically appropriate. In other words, the tech stayed at a certain (unexceptional) level, and might have been both better and worse at appropriate moments. (Better lighting would have helped the middle section, when the house lights were left on far too long and there wasn’t enough definition for the action on stage.) I wish directors would stop treating tech as an afterthought.
I spoke with Town Hall’s tech crew after the show, and learned they’d only worked a few days on the piece. That’s common at the community theater level, or perhaps expected if this were a bus and truck tour stop; I’d have pulled out a few more stops for a world premiere – rounded out the musical jokes with clever lighting and sound. For example, two followspots were used, and neither was particularly good at opening up on target or following. It might have been intentional, and it might have worked, except both lights used a diffusion frost; they should have been hard-edged for the joke to click. Likewise with sound – Dunleavy switches from a handheld mic to a headset mic and the quality of the sound picture changes, but not distinctly enough to register as funny. At other moments she’s entirely off mic, and although the acoustics in the auditorium were fine, this seemed to bother those around me who were using assisted listening devices. (I might have put a body mic on her and used the others as props, controlling the sound quality via board presets.)
As I said, the Town Hall staff was gracious, and spent time with us after the show. Joshua Cote gave us a backstage tour and introduced us to Jessica Krol, Technical Director. I’m grateful for their welcome and generosity. In his curtain speech, Mr. Anderson said “this show has legs.” He meant it could go on to other markets. I agree. Afterward, I texted a friend and told her it would be a fantastic piece for her (and for any actress who wants great songs and a chance to run the emotional gamut.) To the cast and creative team of MPTCSC, nit-picks notwithstanding, we enjoyed ourselves and loved the show. I hope to see the wonderful Ms. Dunleavy on stage again. As for Middlebury and Town Hall Theater, we’ll be back.