April 7, 2018

Against the Odds With "The Lucky Ones"

We're in the midst of an American musicals renascence so vibrant that even people who can't name the Big Five R&H shows know the names Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pasek & Paul and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez, all of whom have hit shows currently running on Broadway. 

Less well-known but also determined to rejuvenate the art form are Abigail and Shaun Bengson, the husband-and-wife duo who perform under the name The Bengsons and who've had three musicals produced within the past year, the most recent being The Lucky Ones, which Ars Nova opened at The Connelly Theater on the Lower East Side last week.

Weaned more on indie rock than the show tunes that influence the uptown musicals makers, The Bengsons create hard-charging shows hewn from their own life stories. I first saw them last November when their show Hundred Days enjoyed a well-received run at New York Theatre Workshop.

Backed by the members of the Bengson's touring band, Hundred Days (which received a Lucille Lortel nomination this past week) recounted the story of the couple's meeting, falling in love, wiggling out of the relationships they already had and moving in together within two days and then spending the remaining 98 fearing that it was all too good to be true and that one or the other would die as a form of retribution. 

Eventually—no spoiler alert since they're both alive and well and actually telling the tale onstage themselves—they find the courage to tie the knot and live happily ever after.

The Bengson's music isn't really my kind of music (there's a similarity to the songs that make it hard for me to remember them individually) and I'm usually turned off by solipsistic narratives that block out the rest of the world the way theirs do. But I found myself fascinated by Hundred Days. 

I was intrigued by the interplay between Abigail's frenetic intensity and banshee-inflected vocals and Shaun's even-keeled mellowness and easy virtuosity on the guitar and keyboards. And I wanted to see what else they might do and so I bought tickets for The Lucky Ones as soon as they went on sale.

Its story, drawn from a tragic incident in Abigail's early teen years, is personal too but this time the canvass is larger, making room for extended family members. 

A cast of 16—lead by Myra Lucretia Taylor as Abigail's mom, Maryann Plunkett as her aunt, Damon Daunno as her charismatic but unstable cousin and Adina Verson as the outsider he falls for—play Abigail's family members and classmates at the progressive prep school her parents once ran.

As she did with Hundred Days, the playwright Sarah Gancher helps shape the memories into the musical's book (click here to listen to an interview I did with the writer for the "Stagecraft" podcast I do for BroadwayRadio) but the narrative remains loose-limbed. It's more tell than actual show.

All three of the Bengson musicals (including Sundown, Yellow Moon, which had a short run at Ars Nova last year) have been directed by Anne Kauffman, the new co-artistic director of Encores! Off-Center, who leans into their material instead of trying to force it into a more conventional production.

The band in both Hundred Days and The Lucky Ones play onstage, the set looks like a smaller version of the metal-pipe jungle gym from last Sunday's televised version of Jesus Christ Superstar and Abigail and Shaun address the audience directly between musical numbers.

There's also galvanic movement choreographed by the couple's friend Sonya Tayeh, one of the best choreographers on TV's "So You Think You Can Dance," who is moving more and more into musical theater.  

So The Lucky Ones has a lot of things going for it, particularly for adventurous theatergoers. And while its parts may not add up to a convincing whole, I still feel lucky to have seen it.

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