May 25, 2024

Bar Hopping with "The Keep Going Songs," "The Lonely Few" and "Three Houses"

All of a sudden everybody doing a musical in this brand new 2024-25 season seems to be bellying up to a bar. Already this month, I’ve seen three shows—The Keep Going Songs, The Lonely Few and Three Houses—where the theater itself has been transformed into a drinking establishment of some kind. 

I suppose it’s an attempt to be immersive, to jump on the bandwagon that has proven so tractive for big shows like the current revival of Cabaret with its pre-show bar scenes spread all over the August Wilson Theatre or the hip production of An Enemy of the People, which sets up an onstage bar during intermission and serves audience members free shots of Aquavit. 

Gauging by their box office numbers, those shows—helped of course by the presence of big name and Tony-nominated stars, Eddie Redmayne in Cabaret and Jeremy Strong in Enemy of the People—have audiences swooning. But the intoxication levels of the smaller and more recently opened off-Broadway shows vary greatly, or at least here's how they did for me:

THE KEEP GOING SONGS: The husband-and-wife duo known as The Bengsons have taken up residence at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater thru May 26.  As usual, the couple’s show draws from their life: this time, it’s their attempt to work through their specific grief over the death of Abigail’s brother Peter from cancer at just 55 and their larger grief over the environmental fate of the planet (click here to read more about the show’s genesis). 

Set designer Cate McCrea has created a playing space for these lamentations that turns the Tow into a nightclub including a half dozen or so café tables surrounding the stage, where Shaun plays a gaggle of instruments ranging from a guitar to a trumpet and Abigail works an onstage soundboard that adds background vocals and other sounds. At various points, one or the other of them leaves the stage to engage with the audience. Some members are even handed small cups of Guinness Stout, which we’re told was brother Peter’s favorite drink. 

The Bengsons have a devoted following and so there were hoots and hollers of approval after each of their folk-rock numbers in what is essentially a 90-minute concert. But I found the show to be less involving than some of their previous ones (my fave is Hundred Days in which they recounted how they met, fell hard for one another, dumped the people they were with and got married in that titular short period of time). 

This show may suffer by comparison because the Bengsons worked on those earlier ones with collaborators like the talented playwright Sarah Gancher or the savvy director Anne Kauffman. But this time, they’ve done the book themselves and are working with a comparatively inexperienced director. The result is a loosey-goosey show that rambles far more than it should, undermining both the power of their appealing songs and the messages of comfort and caution they’re attempting to convey.

THE LONELY FEW MCC Theater has transformed its Newman Mills space into a honky-tonk bar, with tables onstage, a few cozy-looking easy chairs in the space separating the orchestra seats from those in the mezzanine area and cheap Christmas bulbs lighting up the whole place. It’s a fitting setting for this story about a woman named Lila who has a day job in her small Kentucky town’s supermarket but headlines a rock band known as The Lonely Few which plays on weekends at a local spot called Paul’s Juke Joint. 

Lila and her bandmates get a chance at the big time when Paul’s singer-songwriting stepdaughter Amy drops by and announces that she needs an opening act to go on tour with her. The plot kicks off when the women fall for one another but then discover that they have different priorities.  

The show, which is running through June 9, has a book by playwright Rachel Bonds and a score by the up-and-coming composer-lyricist  Zoe Sarnak (click here to read more about her). But while it may be great to have a show with a female-dominated creative team and a queer-centered love story, Bonds and Sarnak don’t seem to know what do with their story.

So they load it up with a bunch of subplots—an alcoholic brother for Lila, an estranged mother for Amy, a pregnant wife for Lila’s bandmate and best friend Dylan—but they don’t do much with those subplots either. Obstacles appear and then disappear with no rhyme or reason.

The music is equally problematic. Every character gets a solo whether it advances the plot or not. Meanwhile, the rock numbers are self-consciously loud (ushers actually offer ear plugs when you enter the theater). And the sound quality was so poor that I also missed most of the lyrics in the quieter ballads.

This is all a shame because there are some terrific performers in this cast, including Lauren Patten as Lila, Taylor Iman Jones as Amy and Damon Daunno as Dylan. Patten is particularly impressive, demonstrating throughout why she deserved to win that Tony for her burn-down-the-house rendition of Alanis Morrissette's “You Oughta Know” in Jagged Little Pill.

But even this show’s set stumbles. The folks at those tables onstage have to turn around and crane their necks if they want to see the scenes taking place in the home that Lila and her brother share because set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer has placed that space above the stage. 

All these missteps surprised me because The Lonely Few was directed by Trip Cullman, who has done such surefooted work on other shows including last season’s revival of I Can Get It For You Wholesale, which just won the Best Revival award from the Outer Critics Circle. 

Here, however, Cullman is co-directing with Ellenore Scott, all of whose previous credits seem to be for choreography.  There isn’t much dancing in The Lonely Few so I’m not sure why they were paired in what turns out to be a pretty wobbly production.

THREE HOUSES: The bar in Dave Malloy’s latest musical sits centerstage in Signature Theater’s Romulus Linney Theater and the audience are cast as patrons at an open-mic night in which a bartender named Wolf serves as M.C. and three storytellers take turns sharing the details of how they made it through the early lockdown phase of the pandemic. 

One (Margo Siebert) found refuge in a family home in Latvia, another (Mia Pak) fled to New Mexico and the third (J.D. Mollison) hunkered down in a small Brooklyn apartment. All three were newly out of romantic relationships, which intensified their loneliness. Each gets about 30 minutes to perform a confessional aria about what they did to fill that time—sorting through old keepsakes, playing videogames, shopping online, drinking

The ghosts of long-dead grandparents pop-up in each installment and Malloy's frequent collaborator director Annie Tippe adds puppets, both of which lend a surreal feel to these stories. Plus there are some overt references to the fairy tales The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, whose meaning escaped me.

Once again the performances are all quite fine. But your enjoyment of this show, which is now running through June 16, will depend on how you feel about Malloy’s music. Personally, I'm mixed. I kept the cast album of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 on repeat for months when it came out a decade ago but I could barely make it through 2019's Octet (although I’m an outlier on that a cappella production, which many people I respect really love).  

There are beautiful moments in Three Houses but overall, Malloy’s music here struck me as more like the underscoring for a moody indie film or the background music at a high-end spa. My mind kept drifting off and I kept having to drag it back to focus on what was going on. In the end, I found the show to be a downer that left me just wanting to go out and get a real drink.

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