BALLAD OF A MAN
at American Blues Theatre
Quicksilver Productions bills Ballad of a Man as "an original pop/rock musical for the 90s." In effect, it's a series of musical comments on a crisis. Attempting to examine the problem of homelessness through one man's sudden descent to the streets, this well-meant work contains melodies more persuasive than the easy lyrics or simpleminded script. Fortunately the score has a lot to sing on its own.
Mike (Kevin Friend) is a real estate salesman specializing in pyramid schemes, a scam artist whose rapid decline begins when his wife Virginia (Elaine Dame) surprises him in bed with his sales assistant Lisa (Tamara Fuhrman). Virginia accuses him of a lack of "self-awareness" and kicks him out, after which a very alienated Mike, a taker not a giver, dumps Lisa.
Within months Mike, bereft of wife and son, is reduced to wandering the streets. The change "from penthouse to shithouse," as Mike puts it, is so sudden it can't be taken on faith. For the same reason, audience members cannot apply any lessons from this change of fortune to themselves. Mike's sole companion is a streetwise survivor simply called Homeless Guy (Bill Noble), who presumably teaches Mike something valuable, though it's not clear what.
Seeing her husband humbled and purified by adversity, Virginia (who has prospered in his absence) takes him back. Not, obviously, a broad-based solution to homelessness. Then, against a backdrop of slides of Uptown street people, Mr. Guy lectures us about the 250,000 to 3 million homeless Americans, how easy it is to become one, and how much tough love it will take to solve this too-familiar social blight. Ballad's plot (the script is by director Michael Bolen) serves merely to illustrate this concluding speech. The dialogue is hobbled by sloganeering, feel-good aphorisms, and 12-step psychobabble ("You've got to want to help yourself. . . . Every day is going to be a struggle. . . . Change doesn't come easily").
Happily, Alan Kovin's pulsating, bluesy score helps Ballad escape the classroom formality, and Bolen's staging makes the most of each note. The 15 songs carry too much of the thematic weight, and they can't make up for the lack of character development, but they do energize every scene and character. A smooth blend of rockabilly, gospel, and pop rock, Kovin's numbers, well delivered by this skilled quartet, range from Virginia's freedom anthem "Mama" to the Jacques Brel-like whimsy of Homeless Guy's "B4itstoolate" to Virginia and Mike's lilting country duet "Later On." Some songs, like Mike and Lisa's weird "Beat Generation," repeat themselves too much, and all suffer from an overmiking that's loud, directionless, and indistinct. Because the production only has one speaker, placed stage right, at times the actors eerily seemed to be throwing their voices like ventriloquists. Still, these solid songs may go on to lives of their own.
Friend tears into every ballad with rich results, never more so than in the vigorous title number. Fuhrman can lift the hard-driving rouser "Inside" into orbit, while Dame, who's also the most convincing actor, brings a clear, strong sound to Virginia's compassionate "Hope." A weathered actor whose craggy face looks as if it created his role, Noble brings lived-in authenticity to a generic part. Sadly, Homeless Guy seems a mere prop. At the end, he remains homeless, despite the generosity of Mike and Virginia, who buy a copy of Streetwise from him.
Yet there's much heart in this eager musical, the songs are winning and splendidly sold, and even the occasional homegrown awkwardness seems dictated by honesty and integrity. For all its lack of focus, this play could win you over by sheer sincerity. True, Ballad won't solve homelessness, but it reminds us of the difference individuals can make. Whether expressed by Kovin or Charles Dickens, that's always an appropriate holiday message.