Dallas — The first words in the musical As We Lie Still, in the opening song “Prologue,” implore the audience: “Ladies and gents, what you are about to see is real magic / But don’t despair…it’s still just a trick.”
That’s important to remember as you navigate through this story of an aging magician in mid-20th-century New York, Avi (Michael A. Robinson), looking back on his life. The musical, with music by Patrick Emile and book by Olivia de Guzman Emile, is about the illusions we allow ourselves to be tricked by, be they mere sleight of hand or something more meaningful—as in faith in and love for other humans.
In 2014, As We Lie Still was accepted into the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where it was performed for two weeks at the Pearl Theatre Company, in a production directed by Michael Serrecchia. That was a big deal for a local composer who was introduced to musicals by his wife and, for theater, had only written incidental music for original plays at Sundown Collaborative Theatre in Denton. The first time I saw him, he was playing his own score on a toy piano for Sundown’s Happily Ever After in the summer of 2011. The group took that show to the New York International Fringe Festival that summer, a trip that was cut short by Superstorm Sandy.
Serrecchia returns to direct the Texas premiere of As We Lie Still at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, where it closes this weekend. Other than Olivia playing Josephine, the love interest for Young Avi (Wyn Delano), and Robinson as Avi, the ensemble is different from the local cast who went to New York with this show in 2014.
It would probably be an interesting story with the time-jumping between Young Avi’s quest for fame on the vaudeville circuit, and older Avi, a “purveyor of books and metaphysical advice”—meaning he owns a bookstore and conducts séances for people who want to speak to their lost loved ones. He should be successful at this considering that his younger self rose to fame by pulling off a remarkable trick: resurrection.
Where the show could use further development is in a parallel thread involving a psychopomp, Azriel (Aaron Green), who helps mortals transition through the spiritual world. It turns out that Avi will never be able to pull an Orpheus and retrieve his beloved from that other world—and that may be his biggest life regret.
This production uses some terrific visuals by projection media designer Peter Rand, which offsets the dull, mostly black set of thick movable walls with drawers and other hiding to aid in the magic, designed by magic consultant Trigg Watson. The magic in the show, including levitation, is truly remarkable.
Olivia gives the standout acting and vocal performance, capturing the essence of a confident young woman who gets what she wants, and finds something bigger. The vocals in the ensemble, notably by Jovane Caamaño as Avi’s assistant Billy and Monique Abry as Ruth, a woman seeking the services of older Avi, are mostly solid. On opening night it could have been stronger.
The biggest star here is Patrick Emile’s music. It’s easy to see why he earned a Frederick Loewe Award for another musical that has been workshopped: The Ballad Hunters, written with playwright Carlos Murillo (dark play, or stories for boys).
Patrick has noted before that the composer who opened his ears to the possibilities in musical theater was—no surprise—Stephen Sondheim. You can hear that influence throughout As We Lie Still, especially in quieter moments, pauses and overlapping vocal lines. It also reminds of composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, for whom repetition and understatement is important. There are also influences from Jewish folk and carnival music.
Unfortunately, in the CTD production, audiences don’t get the scope of it; the only musicians are musical director Cody Dry on piano and Patrick Emile on percussion. I’ve heard demo versions of some of the songs, with a virtual orchestra that elaborates on the score’s melodies. It would have been nice to involve a small combo, at least.
He has a knack for writing songs. The ensemble number “Misdirection” is a delightfully hummable patter song; and Billy’s character song “Life of a Stagehand” has terrific fun with lyrics about always being behind the scenes. Josephine’s second-act “Here Where I Stand” is one of those show-stopping soliloquy numbers sung by a female that inevitably become a musical’s most recorded song. Except in this one, the ending is quiet and somber, rather than blowing it out with all the belts, à la “Rose’s Turn” or “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Take these lyrics:
It seems so long, doesn’t it?
But I’ve had time to think of it.
And at least from here, where I stand,
I can see everything.
There isn’t anything left for me on this side.
So up with the curtain.
Up with the lights, and the music too.
We all have sunsets,
What matter if I get to choose
When my night should fall?
I do hope other theaters give this show a chance. As We Lie Still is in a very small handful of locally penned musicals in recent years (also see: On the Eve) that have something musically interesting to say.