a guest review BY MARI S. GOLD
Have your Chekov with a side of grits and a blast of country-and-western music.
A bar-cum-music venue near Nashville is effectively evoked by Jason Sherwood’s bleached wooden boards with rows of liquor bottles above attesting to the trade of vodka for whiskey… Welcome to Songbird, at 59E59 Theater A through November 29, a play set in Opry land where. former singing great, well- portrayed and sung by Kate Baldwin, returns after a long absence. She’s home to help her son, Dean, (Adam Cochran), launch his own musical career.
We understand that Dean’s life is a wreck because Tammy more or less abandoned him but there’s little depth of feeling–we’re told rather than shown. Tammy comes home with her lover, Beck, a music producer described as a “Hitmaker”; as played by handsome Eric William Morris, he sings well (as do all the players) but he lacks sufficient swagger and authority.
There are a lot of other people milling around including Mia (Ephie Aardema), a young singer
who falls for Beck; Doc (Drew McVety), embroiled in an affair with Pauline, (an excellent Erin Dilly), Soren, Tammy’s alcoholic older brother (Bob Stillman), and Missy, (Kacie Sheik), dressed in black doing her Goth thing but characters are thinly written so it’s sometimes hard to keep them straight. Missy has a drinking problem –the other characters are warming up to one other than Soren who is already there.
The play, by Michael Kimmel, is based on Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull riffing on the original in which an actual bird is a symbol for a young woman’s happiness that disappears when a man shoots the bird out of boredom and then presents it to her. In Songbird, it’s a bluebird that Dean hits with his truck. Act I ends with Dean silhouetted in a doorway holding a noose. So much for foretelling.
As in Chekhov, many major incidents take place offstage. Songbird has interesting story developments, like Missy’s marriage to Rip but, like others twists, this is revealed abruptly and vanishes just as fast.
Lauren Pritchard, who wrote the terrific music and lyrics, comes from the small town of Jackson, TN, about 120 miles from Nashville, where Songbird takes place. Her Small Town Heart that opens the show as a prologue, lets us in on Tammy’s need to get away to a bigger place with more opportunities, a popular country-and-western sentiment. Highway Fantasy, well performed by Beck and Missy, is sort of a love song and sort of a regret for a romantic road not taken. There are lots of songs and language about disappointments about love and life in general.
The Seagull has been adapted and revamped by many writers ranging from Tennessee Williams to Emily Mann and staged as a play, a film and a ballet; it’s been set in the contemporary Hamptons and on an Australian beach. My guess is that this retelling, despite the excellent music and fine vocal performances, is probably not going to be the one worth enshrining.
For more information and tickets for Songbird, please visit 59e59.org.