musicals and operas · the los angeles theatre ensemble & i'm right here productions · Ages 16+ · United States

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June 24, 2011 stage and cinema/bitter lemons

My overall impression

Tony Frankel, theatre critic for Stage and Cinema here.

Here’s what I don’t understand: A musical premieres in Los Angeles, the reviews are encouraging BUT loaded with caveats. Instead of tweaking the new musical, the creators settle with what they’ve got, blatantly disregarding the advice of the critics, and present the same troubled work about a troubled college professor who encourages his 6 troubled clients to sing their confessions, aided by a three-piece band that was hired by the professor. Miraculously, the patients and musicians come up with songs on the spot.

Here are snippets of the reviews: “Admittedly, each of the seven characters is someone whose story we’ve seen before, whether on stage or on the big screen or on a day-or-nighttime soap,” “A bit on the underdeveloped, overly familiar side,” “Feels precisely like a season of ‘Glee’ jammed into a two-hour play,” “An uneven and intellectually ambitious musical about group therapy. Sadly, director Richard Tatum’s lackluster production is marred by flat acting and indifferent music…The generic-therapy conflicts strain to engender our sympathy, while the songs are a collection of slight melodies and unexceptional lyrics along the lines of, ’You’ve got your issues. Here, take a tissue,’” and “Appealing if unfinished experiment…needs a tighter story line, more surprise, and a bit of diversity to give this production the dramatic engine it needs to carry an audience through seven catharses.”

The most telling quote of all: “Here’s hoping “Group” will keep working on its issues. A breakthrough is imminent.”

Instead of working on the issues, the creators decided to stage it again, publicizing the Hollywood Fringe run with deceptively positive snippets from the same reviews. But to what end? Are the creators looking for an angel before they re-work the piece? Are they hoping that this outing will garner more and better reviews so that they will win Best-of-Fringe and stage it yet again?

I suspect that the creators listened to feedback that they WANTED TO HEAR from friends, family and not-too-discerning audiences who elevate REALLY mediocre shows into the category of brilliant (clearly because they have nothing brilliant to compare it to).

Here’s the bottom line: while I agree with a majority of the reviews cited above, GROUP: A MUSICAL is a predictable, sophomoric show which wears its heart on its sleeves and strains credibility with each passing revelation. The first problem is that we’re never really on board with the concept. Next, is the use of stock characters: a closeted gay guy, the cancer patient, the sexaholic, etc. The acting, although showing signs of authentic emotion, is basically overwrought. Plus, it’s only the second time in a year that I had to be talked out of bolting from a show at intermission (my theatregoing companion hated it, too, but thought that SURELY there must be a pay-off in Act Two – there wasn’t).

Some teary-eyed moments at the end do not justify the means, and the so-called improvised songs in GROUP don’t hold a candle to the improvised musicals of Impro Theatre and The Groundlings, to name a few.

These are exciting but scary times for the theatre: young writers and directors are loaded with talent and promise, but sorely lack guidance and mentors (which is exactly why they should listen to critics!). Audiences, like the one that jumped to its collective feet for GROUP, are cheating our future visionaries by making them believe that their work is great (indeed, two other friends who also rose to their feet acknowledged how misguided this show was).

My suggestion to Adam Emperor Southard, who wrote the book, music and lyrics: before you ATTEMPT to re-envision musical theatre, go back and study the works of those who did so successfully (from Hammerstein to Sondheim) and THEN go about deconstructing their theories. It just feels like your work, like your characters’ songs, is being made up on the spot. I know you want to be a part of something greater. I know you’re passionate. I know you see theatre as a place for ideals and inspiration. Now, it is time for you to get really tough on yourself as an artist – writing a musical is 5% inspiration and 95% sweat.

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