Musical theater is rarely an audience’s go-to for subtlety and nuance. Big songs and big characters fill big spaces and the small stuff can get lost amongst all the big. It’s interesting, then, that the strongest moments of Wearing Black, the new musical written and directed by Riley Thomas, are the small moments, the moments between young characters trying to put words (and melody) to their grief over a lost loved one.
The play opens with Evan learning that his twin brother, Charlie, has just died in a car accident. Charlie’s girlfriend, Kristin, feels guilt over letting Charlie get behind the wheel after the drug bender they’d been on and, soon, Kristin and Evan are finding relief from their grief in booze (though, for the life of me, I’ve never seen people swig from room temperature Tanqueray like the characters in this play), drugs and each other.
It’s in these moments that the book, the songs and the acting are all at their best. As Evan, Daniel Tepper, has an awkwardness that makes it believable (if totally expected) that he has long held a flame for his wild brother’s wild girlfriend. Erin Maya’s Kristin is vulnerable and broken and, if she wanted, could well have a lifetime of guys lined up to try to fix her. At this moment, Evan and Kristin sing “Lie to Me,” one of the show’s strongest songs, and the audience gets to see these two young characters really struggle to make sense of the suddenly and shockingly adult world of loss.
On the whole, Thomas’s songwriting is clever and catchy (the show’s two closing pieces, “First Time Since” and “Tomorrow” are other stand-outs) and he directs the show’s 60-minutes smoothly. However, it is Wearing Black’s tendency to go big that undercuts what is enjoyable about the show. Rather than letting his characters have moments of real discovery and let the story flow from these truthful moments, Thomas gives us a “ticking bomb” storyline involving Kristin having 24-hours to pay Charlie’s drug dealer $20,000, her friends rush to help her and a final act of self-destruction that seem like drama forced upon these characters for it’s own sake.
The audience gets ratcheted-up detail after ratcheted-up detail (from the thrown-away line that the people who died in the car Charlie hit were kids on the way to the prom to a barely addressed sexual assault to a mysteriously included marriage proposal) that strips away any of the believable authenticity the play earns in its quieter moments.
Granted, the Wearing Black that we’re seeing now is an edited one-act version of a planned full two-act play, so, we can give some allowances to the difficulty of making that work and not having time to let the story breath. But, in order for even its more complete version to succeed, this remains true of the world of Wearing Black: for everything to go wrong, everything doesn’t have to go wrong.