New Tuners Theatre
ALL EIGHT DIE
at Angel Island
"Wednesday's our TV night," says the heroine of Babylon Sisters to a friend, explaining why she has to stay home with her sister. "It's the only thing we do together."
I don't know the patterns of Norbert Gunther Kramer's family life, but his new musical Babylon Sisters displays a comprehension of life and people that doesn't go much beyond the world of TV sitcoms and cops-and-robbers shows, with only the occasional old movie thrown in to extend his frame of reference beyond the last ten years. A sort of cross between Miami Vice and Blithe Spirit, with a little Barney Miller for good measure, Babylon Sisters is basically a showcase for Kramer's aspirations as composer, lyricist, and scriptwriter. As a composer and arranger, Kramer shows considerable skill and a sophisticated ear. Babylon Sisters is filled with listenable, interesting melodies, inventive harmonies, attractive instrumental textures, and infectious rhythms; it's certainly a whole lot better, as pop musicals go, than syrupy schlock such as The Phantom of the Opera.
A composer as good as this needs a good, strong-willed collaborator. It's not just that Kramer, a German immigrant who developed this work in a New Tuners Theatre musical-theater workshop, is less gifted as a wordsmith than as a musician. But soggy, bland lyrics aside, Babylon Sisters suffers from its creator's immature view of human relationships--if one can judge from what he has put onstage. The insights produced by creative tension with a coauthor would have made this a much better piece than it is now.
That said, let me state that Babylon Sisters isn't really bad. Certainly for audiences with a taste for Kramer's music--glossy jazz pop of the sort one heard on records by Steely Dan, Gino Vannelli, and Stevie Wonder in the mid-1970s--this is an enjoyable, if unfulfilled, display of potential by an emerging young writer. And it's by no means the disaster many first-night observers found it to be; seen a week after its premature opening, it exhibited signs of having improved considerably and of being likely to continue improving. A laconic bemusement toward the absurdity of its story seemed to be emerging during the performance, a diverting attitude that can go a long way toward bridging the gap between the script's intentionally and unintentionally funny passages.
The ludicrous story involves two sisters--one a sweet young office worker, the other an older, worldly wise narcotics cop--who are in love with the same man. The older sister, Angela, is having an affair with Leo, a jack-of-all-underworld-trades; when their relationship falls apart because of Leo's small-time cocaine business, Angela dies mysteriously. She then returns from the dead, though only her sister Danny can see her. Angela coaches Danny into seducing Leo as the first step toward nailing him for Angela's murder. But Danny and Leo start developing a closer relationship, and Angela becomes possessed by jealousy--even in death the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Meanwhile, Danny is also being courted by Jerry, the cop who's investigating Angela's death.
Given the utter ridiculousness of this plot, director Jeff Ginsberg should have emphasized style from the start (as Miami Vice and others of its ilk do to distract viewers from a lack of content). Kramer's pop-rock score and pretensions to urban-underground darkness would have been effectively complemented by a stark, expressionistically stylized rock-concert approach that emphasized personality over plot; a more presentational concert-style staging would also have solved a major problem, which is that the unamplified singing is hard to hear whenever the performers turn away from the audience. This they frequently do, because Ginsberg directed the musical as if it were a play, and a fairly naturalistic play at that. The shallow script just won't support that approach, and the music--by far the best thing in the show--needs more highlighting.
Ginsberg's skill as a director of actors does show in the warm ensemble playing of the four leads: Seana Kofoed as Danny, Jamie Pachino as Angela, Scott Hopkins as Leo, and the very likable Marty Higginbotham as Jerry. The underused supporting cast includes Deanna Boyd and Lisa Marie Schultz as Danny's coworkers, who function as a sort of Greek-chorus backup vocal group, and Michael A. Shepperd as Buck, the owner of the club Leo uses as his base of operations.
But the real star of this show is the highly disciplined offstage band, led by conductor-percussionist Bruce Tedesco through Kramer's sleek arrangements. Producing a remarkably resonant sound at a remarkably soft volume, Ed Billings punts a steady stream of catchy, quirky guitar licks, while synthesizer players Sean Bippen and Brad Jones produce a rich assortment of brass and organ parts to give the score texture, subtlety, and sophistication. As a composer for an instrumental ensemble, Kramer clearly understands the value of teamwork. Now he needs to learn it as a writer of shows if he wants to take his talent as far as it can go.
The title of All Eight Die is a giveaway of the ending of this two-act comedy from Cardiff Giant, which previously gave local audiences LBJFKKK and Love Me. It also suggests the darkness this improvisationally trained company means to convey in the skits and character portraits that make up the play, which was written by director Bob Fisher and the eight-person cast through an improv process. I don't know whether or not the writer-actors set out knowing that comprehensive carnage was the final destiny of everyone in this eight-character show. I do know that improvising material for which you know the ending is generally an unproductive approach; predictably, the ending of the play is its weakest and least convincing part.
But for the first three-fourths of its two-hour approximate running time, All Eight Die is an amusing, occasionally touching demonstration of how flexible a dramatic form improv can be. Each scene in this production stands on its own as a working-out of a specific theme through the various games that improvisers use to make scenes. Yet all the scenes (except the last one) add up to a play: characters develop, events accumulate, and ideas grow. And certain scenes stand out as both funny, in that they have good jokes, and interesting, in the way they work out specific improv processes.
For example, there's a scene in which everyone in the play--residents of a village called Southtown, which is threatened with imminent absorption by affluent, expansive, and adjacent Northtown--gathers around a camp fire. In pairs and individually, they relax and trade gossip and stories. These stories are completely absurd--that's where the good jokes come in, and I won't spoil them by repeating them. But the characters who tell them remain believable, and the things they say continue to reveal new aspects of their personalities.
The dialogue is written and memorized, but it was developed through improvisational rehearsals through a story-telling game, in which the players create a story by taking turns telling parts of it. Nothing any player says can be "vetoed" by the other players, which of course can make for some pretty bizarre stories. In the camp-fire scene in All Eight Die, the game remains apparent even though the actors are no longer improvising; thus there emerges a spontaneous quality that makes the show feel real even when it sounds silly.
This process can be dangerous, of course. Like Babylon Sisters, All Eight Die was seen by some critics before it was ready to open and got blastingly harsh reviews. But a couple of weeks into its run it's playing smoothly and entertainingly. Happily, its small-town setting hasn't been exploited, for the most part, for cheap and obvious Mama's Family-type hick humor. Though its characters are certainly types--the hippie tomboy carpenter (Laura T. Fisher), the aging go-go dancer (Hannah Fowlie), the sweet young bride who can't cook (Daryl Heller) and her cute but harried husband (Scott Hermes), the sleazy small-time swinger (Mark Ray Hollmann), the garrulous old fart (John Hildreth), the smug doctor (Phil Lortie)--they develop enough off-kilter individuality over the course of the play to make us, if not exactly concerned, at least interested to see how things will turn out for them as they try to save their town from the encroaching big city.
Which is why the ending is so disappointing. Nothing these peo- ple do has any meaning if we know from the get-go that all eight die. If Cardiff Giant is trying to pass off some statement about the inevitability of death, it's contradicted too well by the sense of life that permeates the rest of this intriguing and diverting little show.