Inner Voices: Solo Musicals
nytheatre.com review by David Hilder
April 7, 2010
Two very different women, each confronting how to mesh her internal life with the external world, sing their stories in Inner Voices, a pair of solo musicals now being presented by Primary Stages. And while one nicely avoids cliche, the other is an unfortunate mess. What unites the evening, though, is a pair of knockout performances.
"Mosaic" by Cheri Steinkellner and Georgia Stitt finds Ruth, a singer-songwriter, vlogging about her writer's block, while looking through her photos, reliving the moment of her one hit song, and revealing some truly surprising elements of her suddenly complicated life. The music meanders in and out of the piece as it does a composer's mind; it's a very effective way to craft a solo musical. Ruth is a charmer, wry and self-deprecating and witty, and in Heidi Blickenstaff's hands she becomes a captivating presence, even seated for 30 minutes at her desk. Blickenstaff offers a master class in unstaginess, presence without pretense; she's a consummate pro with a killer voice. It helps that Steinkellner and Stitt have written a piece that is ultimately heartfelt, but which keeps its secrets close, revealing them organically and easily in a way that's both surprising and natural. If there's a criticism, it would be that "Not Yet," Ruth's most successful song, in no way sounds like something you'd hear on the radio; this is a musical theatre song. And unfortunately there was a significant technical problem with "Mosaic" at a recent performance. But the piece is a real winner.
"Whida Peru: Resurrection Tangle" by David Simpatico and Josh Schmidt focuses on the title character, a woman in touch with the spirit world, celebrating 40 months since her beloved passed away by inviting his ghost into her hermetically sealed apartment. To call Whida eccentric is a bit like calling water "wet." She seems to be Latina, but she uses as many languages as she can, preferably in a single sentence. She's dressed like a particularly provocative hooker (though it's clear her heart is indeed pure gold). And her home is overstuffed with bric-a-brac that could charitably be thought of as tacky. While this piece starts with a genuinely compelling, unusual introduction—one that uses the piano for percussive as well as tonal sounds—the story that follows is repetitive and undernourished. The one surprise in the story, concerning Whida's past, is welcome, but the music here is frequently labored, and the lyrics rarely display wit, more often settling for a presumed outrageousness—repeating the word "fuck" over and over again is more boring than shocking. Judith Blazer, though, is brave and fierce as Whida Peru, tackling a challenging piece of writing with bravura work; she isn't merely game, she's grand. And Andy Boroson provides expert support on the piano, creating a unique, interesting aural world.
Jonathan Butterell directs both pieces with confidence and assuredness. Dane Laffrey's sets and costumes are terrific—and wildly divergent, as the two musicals demand. And Jennifer Schriever's lighting is subtle in "Mosaic," bolder in "Whida Peru." Sound designer Toby Jaguar Algya still has some work to do in balancing the singers against the instrumentation.
In retrospect, these two distinct pieces of writing share more than they first appear to, with women singing about who they are and who they want to be. If one of the two is more successful, the pairing offers some tangy entertainment and two dynamite performances.