by Doug Hamilton -
SGN Contributing Writer
THE HOURS OF LIFE
CORNISH STUDIO THEATRE
Through December 14
I expected to be moved, but I wasn't expecting to be dazzled, and I was both. Theatre22's world premiere of their new musical, The Hours of Life, is a triumph of talented people making smart decisions that inform the play from every angle, from set to staging, script, cast, singing and score. I was hooked from the opening moments when the chorus streamed onstage from all corners for their opening number, singing 'The Machinery of Man,' looking and sounding like a Broadway production.
While not dancing, the singers walked and swooped to their points with purpose, as groups of people in musicals do, forming patterns like pinwheels around the center stage. Actually, I was already hooked on the stage before they got there.
The set designed by Robin Macartney is striking in its neoclassic simplicity. A two-tiered round platform stands center stage, the top of which is painted as a clock face with Roman numerals. That's it. It is strong single element that unifies the entire production. The platform allows for theatre in the round (or in this case, three-quarter round, because the orchestra takes up the remaining quarter of the theatre). This made for an unexpected Steampunk feel.
The platform makes it so a cast member can take two steps up, stand on top of the clock face, and command center stage for a solo or soliloquy. The chorus uses the steps as bleachers. In one scene it becomes a gazebo in the audience's imagination. Different corners of the stage were used to represent different places and time in the story. It works splendidly. If the set seems minimal, the period costumes evoke the finely wrought detail of the Dickensian era and leave the mind to fill in the architecture of the scenes from the cavernous shadows of the theatre.
The opening act gives us eight exquisite original songs written by local playwright and composer Paul Lewis, played lushly by a five-piece orchestra including a grand pianist, drummer, cellist, bass and guitar players, who also seamlessly provide the background music at key points during spoken scenes.
Act I takes us through the story of Edgar Allan Poe's life from after the publication of his most famous poem, 'The Raven,' to the deathbed of his wife, Sissy (also his cousin, yikes!), who is dying of consumption. Actress Sarah Trowbridge plays Sissy to pull out all our heartstrings.
We meet a Poe who while tenderhearted to the ones he loves, is scathingly critical of other poets of the day and humanity in general, drinks to excess, and suffers poverty due to his poor business decisions. The irony is that even while he is famous, he received no more compensation for the publishing rights of 'The Raven' than to be able to afford to buy a pair of shoes.
We also learn of how he came to meet the poet Sarah Helen Whitman, and the ignoble facts behind their first meeting that lead to their tortuous romance. While we admire Poe's brilliance, we are aware he is a ne'er-do-well, quick-to-anger, unreliable cad. Meg McLynn singing, 'And then the Pages Turn' as Sarah Whitman, was a memorable musical moment in this act, and captures her fascination with literature and Poe.
Actor Brian Pucheu makes a convincing embodiment of Poe, with a Southern gentleman's drawl and a deep baritone singing voice. He conducts himself with the body language of arrogance and self-loathing. His character is quite rightly the kingpin of the production, but it is his nemesis and foil, Maelzel, delightfully and comically portrayed by Michael Ramquist, who all but walks off with the show using his Old World Viennese accent and off-kilter charm.
Maelzel tours the U.S. with the 'Mechanical Turk,' a chess-playing machine that always wins. It is a great side-show prop, resembling a coin-operated fortune teller who plays chess. When Poe publishes an article exposing the secret of the device (it has Maelzel's sidekick, Schlumberger, a world champion chess playing dwarf inside the base), Poe becomes Maelzel's sworn enemy. The comic relationship between Maelzel and Schlumberger (played by newcomer Victor Matlock, of whom we hope to see more) feels like classic Laurel and Hardy, especially in their scene on the too-tiny bed, which left the audience rolling in laughter.
Act Two brings us nine more original Paul Lewis songs, and completes the arc of the story of loves lost, plotted revenge, and the unwinding of fate. Curiously, for such dark subject matter, this show seems destined to become a seasonal holiday classic due to its mesmerizing score, comic moments, and ultimate poignancy. There is a planned Christmas wedding, and some beautiful songs such as 'The Bells' that seem perfect for caroling.
Ultimately, we are left with sadness for Whitman and Poe, but it is a velvety sadness with some underlying feeling of joy for having experienced this beautiful musical. Or maybe, for those of us who have nursed broken-hearts, there is some consolation in Poe's misadventures. At least, we can tell ourselves, we didn't eff it up quite like Poe, who died broken-hearted, on October 7, 1849 at 5:02 AM, the time the hands point to on the clock painted stage.
My only regret about this production is that the run only continues through this weekend. All the cast, crew, musicians, designers, tech crew, dialect coaches, etc. involved with Producer/Director Corey McDaniel and Composer/Playwright Paul Lewis have produced a true work of art that showcases our local talent as polished professionals. If you haven't seen it yet, try to get tickets for one of the four remaining shows.
The show continues at the Cornish Studio Theatre (at the Cornish Playhouse - formerly the Intiman Theatre), 201 Mercer St. on Friday, 12/12 @ 8 p.m., Saturday, 12/13 @ 2 p.m. & @ 8 p.m., Sunday, 12/14 @ 2 p.m. Tickets: $22-general; $14-senior/military/student; $11-TPS members. $5 minimum pay-what-you-can performances on 12/13 & 12/14 matinees. Tickets available at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/858076 and at the door. For more information, visit www.theatre22.org.
Share on Facebook
Share on Delicious
Share on StumbleUpon!