See What I Wanna See, with lyrics and music by Michael John LaChiusa, is currently onstage at Theatre Three’s Theatre Too. Since he will be doing the same double task for Giant, which will have its world premiere at Dallas Theater Center in January (for which Sybille Pearson is adapting Edna Ferber's novel), there is interest in his work in these parts (Uptown Players will also do his earlier Hello Again in 2012).
TheaterJones has already reviewed the See What I Wanna See production, but this commentary concerns the music and the musical performances.
See What I Wanna See is a weird concoction that weaves together two stories. The program claims that a third tale is involved, which has to be the very brief prologue and postlude that is set in ancient Japan. But, these two scenarios are only a few lines long and seem to be last-minute appendages. Since the musical is based on short stories by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, something Japanese-ish had to make an appearance, no matter how tangentially tacked on.
99 percent of the musical concerns the two main stories, one of a murder in New York City’s Central Park in 1951 and the other, a tale of a conflicted priest setting up a phony miracle to prove how gullible the faithful are, is set in the same location in 2002.
The plot is a little confusing, but here is a short attempt to convey the basics. First of all, the actors play double roles; one in the first part and a completely different character in the second. Jackie Kemp and Jennifer Noth each play a third character, namely a Japanese couple who alternately kill each other in the opening and closing scene. In Act One, Noth and Kemp portray a mismatch husband and wife, who are accosted by Daylon Walton’s lustful thief. It is Kemp’s character that ends up dead. A janitor (brilliantly played by Ashley Wood) is a wobbly eye-witness. Amy Mills is a phony crackpot medium bought in so that the dead man can give his side of the story.
LaChiusa shows the crime from everyone’s viewpoint, but strangely, all characters take credit, alternately, for the crime. In the second act, all of the actors are secondary non-witnesses to the "miracle," which maybe happens or not. The powerful performance of Wood, as a distraught and confused priest who pulls a religious prank that backfires, is the highlight of the entire show.
LaChiusa’s music is a crazy quilt of styles. There is some jazz, a bit of Japanese influence, some old fashioned rock 'n' roll, some Broadway, some pseudo-classical, and even a couple of Gilbert & Sullivan-esque patter songs. Of course, it is impossible to judge what this show would sound like in its original instrumentation. Here, they only use two players. Musical director Terry Dobson, on a sampled piano, is joined by Ellen Kaner on woodwinds. The occasional percussion part is played by the stage manager, Sally Soldo.
Amazingly, LaChiusa manages to write a score, with all of these different styles, that eventually sounds much the same. Perhaps this sameness is the result of his constant shifting of the musical gears, which begins to be expected, combined with his limited harmonic language, which strives to be innovative, yet edgy, at the same time. He is not a tunesmith. There is really no melody that sticks, but he knows how to serve dramatic situations. In general, LaChiusa’s music is effective and communicative without being memorable except for being effective and communicative.
All of the actors oversing and the vocal wear and tear becomes more and more noticeable as the evening progresses. Considering what a small space Theater Too is, and that the thrust stage puts the actors in the middle of the audience, they could all back off to about half of the level they are using. Of course, that would be difficult in the really intense moments. Perhaps this is just too small a space for a show that requires such forceful singing.
None of the voices are of operatic quality, but they really don’t need to be for this show. Noth has a shrillness that begins to wear and Walton is occasionally adrift on the pitches. However, while some of the actors are better singers than others, all are serviceable. Vocal quibbles aside, it’s an exceptionally strong cast that creates colorful and distinctive characters.