Dallas — “Ladies and gentleman, what you are about to see is real magic. But don’t despair; it’s still just a trick.” With the smarmy smile and calculated theatricality of a classic vaudevillian, Avi Leitner begins repeating this phrase like an incantation, joined on stage by five other singers whose voices contrast and meld with his in an intoxicating round. And like the swiftest sleight-of-hand, the spell of As We Lie Still is cast, and the audience is caught in the palm of the hand of a conjurer, anxious to see what will happen next.
As We Lie Still, a new musical creation from Dallas-based composer and lyricist Patrick Emile, with a book by his wife (and the show’s lead actress) Olivia de Guzman Emile, is featured as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, a vitally important forum for new creative works from artists around the country. With the musical theatre landscape increasingly populated by revivals, stage adaptations of Hollywood films, and jukebox musicals hung on slim narrative threads, original and imaginative musical works often face serious obstacles in reaching audiences. As We Lie Still, with its intriguing premise, inventive staging and talented cast, is a great example of the promising works the NYMTF provides with much-needed support and exposure.
In a hospital room in 1920’s-era New York, a young woman maintains a fearful vigil at the bedside of her husband, non-responsive and dying after a train crash. The young woman, Hope (Erika Larsen), has been kept company during her painful watch by a charming older man, Avi (Michael A. Robinson, who also serves as the show’s costume and scenic designer), who regales her with tales of his youth as a stage magician and illusionist. Young Avi (Travis Stuebing) has a worshipful stagehand, Billy (Clinton Greenspan, who doubles as Hope’s comatose husband, Michael), a bag of stale tricks, and a desire for one great illusion that will take his act to the big time. Things begin looking up when his ad for a new assistant is answered by the beautiful and spunky Josephine (de Guzman Emile). Their meet-cute-cum-job-interview song, “Can You Work on Sundays?” is an early highlight, and with Josephine’s arrival, things begin to get cooking for both Avi and the show.
Young Avi’s dream is to master a trick he apparently paid dearly to learn, the art of resurrecting the dead. But so far, his attempts have fallen flat, with many doves and rabbits sacrificed in the attempt. He finally reveals his secret to Josephine, who, desperate to earn enough money to support her young daughter, relinquished to an orphanage for safe-keeping, suggests to Avi that perhaps he needs to try again with something he holds far more dear than a rabbit. Their song about Avi’s conviction that the trick can work, and Josephine’s belief in him, “Real as a Rainbow,” becomes a recurring theme throughout the show, symbolic of the ephemeral line the characters walk between reality and illusion, and life and death.
Hope’s pleas for Michael to return to her are interwoven with Avi’s recollections of the growing success of their act, with Josephine’s audacious willingness to literally put herself in the line of fire for Avi propelling their rise. But just as Michael seems to hover in a netherworld somewhere between living and dying, Josephine does as well, and that world is one that is quiet, peaceful, and is inhabited by Azriel (George Michael Ferrie, Jr.), a beautiful creature whose true nature quickly becomes clear. Desperate for connection, Azriel’s plaintive solo “Street of Mine” acts a lament for the loneliness of his role as solitary guide for people who are destined to leave him. Josephine, curious and interested in who he is rather than only in where they are, fascinates and delights him, and the audience quickly realizes that the more she returns, the harder it will be to leave. And thus, the stakes are raised, not just for Avi and Josephine, but also Hope and Michael, whose connection to these events is predictable, yet still compelling.
With confident direction by Michael Serrecchia, As We Lie Still weaves a mesmerizing spell, anchoring its characters in time and place, yet allowing for the pulsing emotionality and mercurial nature of magic, both staged and “real.” Michael A. Robinson’s costume design and the use of a flickering screen displaying expository silent film-style title cards nicely evokes the period, although the Spartan set, consisting primarily of crates that double as chairs, a prop table, and a hospital bed, could benefit from a bit more embellishment. The lighting design by Sarah Abigail Hoke-Brady is essential to denote changes in locale and both the passage and suspension of time, especially since the entire cast remains on stage, sometimes in shadow, throughout the majority of the show.
That cast works together cohesively, although admittedly their skills are not equal. De Guzman Emile and Ferrie are the vocal standouts, especially de Guzman Emile’s “Here Where I Stand,”while Larsen and Stuebing acquit themselves nicely, but are stronger actors than singers. Greenspan is charming as Billy, but really comes into his own in his dual role as Michael, with the lovely “What Do I Do Here?” equally applicable to all the characters, who are each looking for a sense of connection and stability. Robinson, as Old Avi, is variable in vocal strength, and initially his florid theatricality seems a bit incongruous with the portrayal of Stuebing as young Avi; Stuebing’s performance is more intense and less affected. But as events transpire, Robinson’s stentorian tones and flourishes with his cane become clear as an elaborate suit of armor, a protection against the pain and mistakes of Avi’s past. It’s a tricky acting choice that pays off in humor early on, and in emotional resonance as the show builds to its moving conclusion.
Under the musical direction of Rachel Olsen, As We Lie Still features a mix of styles. Two of the songs, “Life of a Stagehand” and “Misdirection,” are traditional Broadway-style show tunes which feel largely superfluous to the play’s action and characterization, but the aforementioned “Can You Work on Sundays?” is a clever duet reminiscent of an Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. There are elements of traditional Jewish folk tunes running through the score; songs like “Resurrection” and “For the Magic” throb with a mix of both the spiritual and the theatrical. Azriel’s “Street of Mine,” Josephine’s “Here Where I Stand,” Hope’s “Next Stop, Hope,” and the Azriel/Josephine duet “In This Place” are more contemporary pop melodies exemplifying what composer Robert Vieira calls the “I Want”song, in which characters express their longings, confess their fears, and assert their identities. Somehow, these diverse styles mesh to form a complex score that, despite some ragged edges, finds a compelling magic of its own.
As We Lie Still comes off a bit tentative; some songs serve more as expository filler than concrete works, de Guzman makes a stronger impression than her co-stars, and the show could benefit from tighter pacing. But overall, this is an entertaining, inventive and fresh work, and is exactly the sort of show that should have a chance at a bigger audience. Hopefully, its inclusion in the New York Musical Theatre Festival will give the show the promotional opportunity it deserves.
» Read our interview with Patrick and Olivia Emile