May 31, 2017

Little Musicals with Big Aspirations: "The Boy Who Danced on Air" and "Ernest Shackelton Loves Me"

Over the past few months, I've been bingeing on the big awards-baiting musicals that have opened on Broadway. Several of them are terrific but it was nice last week to see two smaller shows that are also trying to do something different with the art form.

At first glance, The Boy Who Danced on Air, which is playing at the Abingdon Theatre Company's June Havoc Theatre through June 11, might seem to be just a traditional book musical with a pleasing score. But its subject matter and its subtle use of choreography push it into new territory.

The show was inspired by a 2010 PBS documentary on the revival of the ancient Afghan practice in which powerful men buy young boys and train them to perform as dancers and sex slaves until they reach puberty.

The boy of the title is Paiman, a graceful dancer and obedient concubine to his owner Jahandar but who is now at 16 aging out of his role as a "bacha bereesh," or boy without a beard.

Jahandar has fallen in love with Paiman during their six years together but acknowledging those feelings is taboo and so he plans an arranged marriage for the boy to mark the end of their relationship. Meanwhile, Paiman develops plans of his own when he falls for a fellow dancing boy and dreams of a life with him.

According to the program notes, book writer and lyricist Charlie Sohne and composer Tim Rosser worked on the show for six years. The results of their labor is uneven.

The book is overworked. In addition to the two love stories, there's a distracting subplot about Jahandar's efforts to embarrass the Americans who have bailed on a promise to finish a power plant that will make life easier for the local community.

But Rosser's score nicely incorporates Afghan rhythms through the use of percussions and the lute-like rubab. Some of the songs are hauntingly beautiful.

And the Abingdon's artistic director Tony Speciale, who also directed the show when it premiered at San Diego's Diversionary Theatre last year, has created a lovely showcase for their work. 

The Abingdon usually operates on a limited budget but Speciale and his design team have created an attractive production that makes inventive use of backlighting and scrims for scenes that might be too uncomfortable to sit through otherwise.

And Speciale has also assembled a cast of engaging actors with strong singing voices. Troy Iwata is particularly sympathetic as Paiman and he is indeed a beautiful dancer as he shows in an affecting solo number in the second act that has been sensitively choreographed by Nejla Yatkin.

A few critics have complained that a story involving pedophilia is nothing to sing or dance about. But in this case, they're wrong.

Those naysayers might feel more at home with Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, the winsome romcom that is playing at the Tony Kiser Theatre through June 11. Or they might not, cause this isn't a conventional musical either.

Instead, it's the improbable mashup of the stories of Kat, a Brooklyn single mom who's juggling the competing demands of being an electronic-music composer and the mother of a new baby, and the titular British explorer who was stranded in Antarctica a century ago.

Joe DiPietro's amusing book brings them together through some mystical mumbo jumbo that has the duo first communicating and time traveling through Skype messages and eventually in person.   She helps him with his mission; he helps her with her life.

The pop rock score is by Brendan Milburn with lyrics by Val Vigoda, who also plays Kat in addition to being fierce on the electric fiddle. Director Lisa Peterson keeps things zipping along through the show's 90 minutes.

And special kudos must go to production designer Alexander V. Nichols whose video projections make smart use of the historic footage from the real expedition. 

The show is silly, with most of the humor supplied by the talented Wade McCollum's chest-thrust-out portrayal of Shackelton and fast changes into the other men in Kat's life. 

But, at heart, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is an old-fashioned inspirational tale about having the courage to endure, be it subzero temperatures or a 3 a.m. feeding.

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