Thursday, March 29, 2012

Now. Here. This.: Grump Alert

Now. Here. This. is an unusual, personal musical that means well but fails to come together as a cohesive show.  It is always a challenge to tell a personal story or turn a personal narrative into something dramatic.  One of the impressive things about storytellers, whether working in non-fiction or fiction, is to bring an audience in and hold onto them.  But sometimes talented and charismatic people do work that is personal but does not rise to the level of a meaningful, universal truth.

Now. Here. This. is a musical interpretation of episodes from the lives of the four actors (Susan Blackwell, Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Heidi Blickenstaff)  playing the four characters in the show.  The action is set initially in a museum and the characters break out from their museum wanderings and tell stories about their lives.  In the museum, they discuss the universe and our place in it.  From there, the musical further explains that what ties the show together are the writings of monk Thomas Merton who encouraged people to focus on the intersection of Now, Here and This.

However, this entire piece is about Then, There, and That.  If it is supposed to be a treatise on staying present and connected to the moment being experienced it is a little strange that it is all about these characters reflecting on their own past.  It's certainly a bold idea to make a musical about your personal past and your personal struggles (being gay, getting caught masturbating, embarrassed by your parents hoarding, lying to people) (and I did not see [title of show] so this is my first interaction with these performers).  The challenge is being able to tell those stories in a way that serves more than an audience of your acolytes, friends and family.  I did not find the connective tissue between each of these stories to be strong enough to bring the piece together.  The personal reflections never seemed to rise above that level and become deeper stories of human truth.  I kept waiting for a moment in the end where I would get the emotional payoff I was seeking, but it did not come.


Some individual scenes were quite touching but they sat in isolation.  For instance, Hunter Bell's fantasy view of his success as a teen model contrasted with the reality of that scene was one of the most powerful visuals of the show.  Susan Blackwell told a great story about her father's struggles with literacy contrasted against her own achievements as a writer.  But in the end it was nothing more than a series of vignettes and I am sorry to say some of them felt very obvious and overdone (ugh the emotionally constipated parent one and the dead grandmothers one in particular--I know I am that person who thinks a vignette about dying grandmothers is maudlin, sappy, and overdone.  I already have my seat in hell reserved.).  The museum structure did the musical no favors.  The first 30 minutes of the show dragged as the conceit got going.  I was happy when it was ultimately left behind.

At one point, the cast starts to quote from the movie Tootsie.  It was then I realized how much better Tootsie was than anything I was watching. 

I have struggled to pin down why this show did not work for me when I have seen a lot of other personal theater lately that I liked (Bad Kid, No Place To Go, with a grain of salt the now-admittedly-fabricated The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs).  Maybe it was the flip tone of the piece juxtaposed against serious moments or just a sense of humor I did not share.  The real problem was I did not care about these people and their stories.  As someone who really loves to hear stories of human truth (Hello! Entire month of January spent listening to Daniel Kitson tell me about life), I was a little surprised by how this show did not strike a chord with me.

3 comments:

  1. I think the show was much stronger last summer when it was work-shopped at the Vineyard. The museum element wasn't as prevalent - relying just on the mystery boxes to tie the show together. And it was more about who each of the actors were to bring them to the now. here. this. in their lives. I think it was more relate-able as someone who was an outcast growing up and found who they were when they found theater. Which is why I loved the show last summer & became slightly obsessed. Not as happy with this version - but I can tell they are trying to make the show relate-able to more people.

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  2. I haven't seen the latest version, but I didn't like the workshop much, and I'm with you on the dying grandmothers bit. Maybe because I'm roughly the same age (ok, maybe a tad older) than the actors, and I am hard-pressed to find friends lucky enough to have both parents still living...most of us lost our grandparents 10-20 years ago. (And two stories about dying grandmothers just seemed excessive...)

    I did see title of show several times, in several incarnations, and loved it. I liked the fact that it was so inside-theatre-y. I felt this covered a lot of the same ground - about people putting down your efforts at creativity, not fitting in during childhood/adolescence, etc., but did so in a much more (to use your word) maudlin fashion. I laughed a lot during title of show; not so much with Now. Here This. Maybe I shouldn't have gone into it expecting it to be as funny.

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  3. I'm probably about 5 - 10 years younger than the actors. I also saw this show last summer and my grandmother passed away recently. Two weeks ago. The catharsis I wanted was to go see the show with dueling dying grandmother monologues. It's not for everyone. The boat song felt very out of place and I felt like the hard rock sound drowned out some of the really pretty melodies in a number of songs.

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