“Now. Here. This.” It sounds immediate and relevant and urgent. A/C Theatre Company, a new and edgy venture launching its second Arizona premiere in their debut season, has created the same kind of anticipation in the Valley. So, last night’s opening performance on the Phoenix Theatre campus should have been a soaring intersection of aspirations.
This 2012 musical written by Hunter Bell and Susan Blackwell (the same team that wrote the one-act 2008 Broadway musical “[title of show]”, another offbeat musical whose name earns a double-take) revolved around a group of young adult friends meeting for a day at the natural history museum. As they wandered the exhibits, poignant memories and life experiences surfaced amongst the dinosaurs, birds and bees.
“What are the odds?” asked the opening number, referring to our successful planet habitation. The show’s odds in last night’s performance were stacked in the house’s favor. We need the kind of talent and enthusiasm A/C offers as they venture into trials and experiments new to the Valley. So it’s no surprise that a few of the vignettes, several numbers and all four actors delivered handily some anticipated shivers and private truths that resounded within each of us.
Tracy Payne Black as Woman #1 had a voice and presence made for the cozy Hardes space. Her hoarding monologue was especially moving, and her song deliveries rung with crystalline clarity, not facing balance struggles that occurred at times during other performances.
Woman #2, a conflicted Daddy’s girl, was played by Brenda Jean Foley, one of those actors whose vocal breadth and acting depth are arresting. Her true mezzo-soprano spliced cleanly above the other voices when needed, but nestled warmly into the hearts of people as she sang “This Time.”
Kevin Fenderson’s character, Man #1, gelled in Act II when the crux of his personality was rawly displayed in the “Kick Me” song scene. This, after his earlier stabbing disclosure that “keeping a secret is a full-time job,” drew the audience fully into his experience.
Particularly as comic relief, Micah Jondel DeShazer as Man #2 made very believable his distracted and nonplussed character. Both guys were successfully responsible for various zinging notes in a number of complex dissonant quartet chords when the four sang together.
A cool, black, minimalist set design of only glowing stars, a superimposed swirling galaxy on the floor, and four short, mobile pillars with exhibit labels in white, placed greater emphasis on characters, especially in the opening as we were getting the lay of the land.
Cute choreography as well as some effective split-staging also worked in the evening’s favor. The action-figure choreography and creative movement held attentions. The split-staging was unique in that two characters interacted within a memory, but were physically removed from one another. On several memorable occasions, most notably the hair-washing tub vignette, Director Thomas Strawser blocked a certain character’s memory scene on one end of the stage while a separate character of the same memory was blocked and exchanged dialogue with the reminiscer from the opposite end of the stage.
Even with these promising factors weighting the show’s odds, the wandering and sometimes disjointed leaps between the scientific natural histories and the human stories, were tough to overcome last night. That opening number, for instance, spewed clever and awesome information, but nothing about it indicated that the four people singing it knew or were connected to one another. Later, as the four were allowed more interaction, the show gained speed and strength in the second half. Yet…
As it stretched on one occasion to connect Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest to a peer-pressured life, the real trouble-hurdle loomed especially high. That is, while the exaggerated metaphor was cute, it unfortunately emphasized keenly the central insurmountable challenges of the show:
Now. Throughout the evening, though each individual character re-lived and uncovered haunting truths of their past, how this exact moment in time was impacted, was never very clear. It got closest to resolving in Woman #1’s number. Black wove how exquisitely our pasts, with a little insight and forgiveness, can create a magnificent present in “Golden Palace.”
Here. Again, the museum setting didn’t really allow an intersection of the four lives into which we dove. They were all experiencing important and well told moments, but their trajectories didn’t intersect with one another. We didn’t much see them lean on or confide in one another to gain strength or bolster human connection.
This. The all important ‘this’ wasn’t allowed the opportunity of shared community. We got the clear message that as each of the four re-lived individual pains, the other three became characters in the memory, but not present partners who shared the burdens. If the four couldn’t share their struggles and discoveries and growth with one another, it most certainly shut the audience out from that ‘bigger meaning’ chance, too.
Through no fault of the cast and creative team at A/C Theatre Company, “Now. Here. This.” has the kind of odds that causes it to fold in on itself. With some glittering Phoenix star potential, along with individual numbers and dialogue that shimmer, the show nonetheless, without revision, risks extinction. How wonderful that A/C Theatre has the strength and chops to keep working and introducing us to new material. It is well worth the immersion into these characters’ stories and music for an upcoming evening out. We are lucky to have the talent that lovingly coaxed the best and most from the show before it meets a potential future of Then There That.