nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 27, 2006
Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, the writer-composer-director tandem responsible for two of the best new musicals in recent years, The Pursuit of Persephone and Iron Curtain, operate at an even higher level than usual with their new one, The Flood. The subject matter, about a small Midwestern town facing a potentially devastating flood, is not your typical musical theatre fare, but it inspires both creators to raise the bar for themselves, and offers audiences this team's richest and most rewarding work to date.
Set in the fictional farming community of Meyerville, Illinois during the summer of 1993, The Flood chronicles the town's struggle to survive in the face of the disastrous title event. Despite rising water levels, no one thinks anything's going to happen at first: there hasn't been a flood in one hundred years, and no one is expecting another anytime soon. No one except Ezekiel, the town's resident bible-thumping doomsayer. He figures there's a reckoning in store, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. The denizens of Meyerville ignore him (they've heard this from Ezekiel before) only to discover too late that they should've listened.
Mills and Reichel build suspense by letting the audience get acquainted with the characters in the first half, and wisely holding off the flood until Act II. Raleigh and Alice are high school sweethearts wondering about which direction they should take their relationship: Raleigh longs to get out of this one-horse town and the shadow of his father (who is the Mayor, and runs the general store), while Alice doubts whether Raleigh is "the one" or not. She's also got problems with her own father—Ezekiel—and her mentally-challenged sister, Rosemary, who has an unusually strong attachment to the river. Then, there's Curtis, a wealthy local farmer who wants to settle down and get married. But, his fiancée of five years, Susan, a high school teacher, is restless and uncertain. By the time the flood hits, the characters are firmly established, and the audience has a vested interest in seeing who will survive and who won't.
This is a classic man vs. nature story that examines the durability of humanity against the vicious circle of destruction and rebirth. The town will surely be destroyed, but will the citizens of Meyerville be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and start anew, or will they wallow in a mire of self-pity and sorrow? The Flood addresses these questions with a gorgeous, sweeping score full of lush melodies, and full-bodied orchestrations. The music is a glorious pastiche of Aaron Copland and country music/show tune fusion (think The Spitfire Grill, and you'll have a good idea of what I'm talking about). There are many great numbers here. In "Hell, We're American," Mayor Keller rallies the men folk by reminding them they can "weather anything" because of their U.S. birthright. Susan experiences relief and optimism as she surveys the post-flood damage to her home in "Float," the show's most surprising song. And, Alice plaintively searches for perspective, on both Raleigh and the flood's aftermath, in "From Here," the aching penultimate number.
Mills and Reichel's book is solidly constructed, and handles its multiple subplots and characters with ease. There are a couple of things that could stand to be fleshed out, like the source of Ezekiel's fervent religious beliefs and Rosemary's hypnotic fixation on the river. And, in The Flood's most interesting but underdeveloped device, Mills and Reichel make The River an actual character, but fail to give her any personality. With so much emphasis on the townspeople, though, these flaws can mostly be overlooked.
Reichel directs with confidence and force. She handles The Flood's thematic and practical challenges with ease, and stages the action with fierce, speedy precision. Her staging of the actual flood, in particular, is a simple but slyly executed bit of stagecraft that knocks one's socks off.
Jonathan Rayson displays solid leading man chops as Curtis, while Matt DeAngelis and Jamie Davis make appealing ingénues as Raleigh and Alice, respectively. As Susan, Catherine Porter makes a potentially unlikable character sympathetic, and Jennifer Blood handily avoids a horde of clichés with her expert performance as Rosemary. Joseph O'Brien movingly takes Mayor Keller from comic relief to sturdy community bedrock. They all have terrific voices, as does the rest of the ensemble, and often raise The Flood to celestial heights.
I don't know how much longer I have to keep encouraging deep-pocketed producers to pick Mills and Reichel up. They clearly have what it takes to be major stars in the commercial arena. If I haven't made that clear already—in either this review or previous ones—then go see The Flood, and find out for yourself.