nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 15, 2008
Fugitive Songs is billed as a "song cycle," but I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. It's really a collection of songs, many of which share a theme of young people from the Heartland running away from home toward some undefined and elusive something better—a very American idea. The show has no book—just 18 songs strung together, and because they're not particularly theatrical the program presents challenges to its director, Joe Calarco, and its cast of singing actors. It's meant to showcase the composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen; I wondered if a concert or cabaret (or, better, a concept album) wouldn't have been a better choice.
The material here includes a number of lovely pieces about yearning and desire and the need to break free from a life of too much sameness. Miller's music is evocative and sometimes emotionally soaring. Tysen's lyrics can be wittily well-observed yet disarmingly simple, as in this song about hiking through the Rockies:
Is it always uphill in Colorado?
I only remember the climb
You would think the Rocky Mountains
Would choose to slope down at some time...
But take a look at that sky
Take a look at that Kansas highway sky....
Tysen strains for poetics at times:
Everyone wishes they could write their past a letter
Saying, the weather is here
Wish you were beautiful
An interesting idea, this, but it doesn't quite work. There's also at least one lyric that should never have made into final draft, from a song about a young (straight) man drifting into show business: "First came a role in Hello, Dolly! / What next? Homosexuality?" Tysen seems too smart, on the evidence of everything else in Fugitive Songs, to let such homophobic foolishness mar his work.
A few of the songs are built on solid character ideas, like one about a hitchhiker who sees his ex-girlfriend at the wheel of every car that passes him by. Others attempt colorful character humor (there's an intriguing piece about a pair of friends who rob a gas station, for example). And throughout the score there's enough evidence of talent to make the prospect of a Miller-Tysen musical tantalizing (one, The Burnt Part Boys, is on Vineyard's schedule next season, according to the program).
Calarco's staging of Fugitive Songs is disappointingly static, and the performers often seem unsure of what to do with their hands. None of the singers makes a particularly strong impression, and a few of them (especially Halle Petro) seemed to have trouble making themselves heard unmiked over the five-member band. The band, led by musical director Justin Mendoza, puts over Miller's tunes nicely, though, and in a charming number just before the show's end, they get to step out from the shadows of the rear of the stage and do their stuff center stage, which is a treat.
But it's mainly the writers who are served by this particular showcase. It will be interesting to see what kind of theatre music they offer us in the more traditional bounds of a new musical play or comedy.