Taking Liberties: An Evening of Elvis Costello
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
July 9, 2009
Every time I go to the Brick Theater I see something I've never seen before. Such is the case with their newest tenant, Taking Liberties: An Evening of Elvis Costello, the inaugural entry in DMTheatrics's new performance series, "The Badass Record Collection." Part rock concert/cabaret and part live music video, the show runs through 14 entries from the Costello songbook in an hour with the kind of jumpy energy that comes along with trying something new. But, as with all things new, there are some kinks to be worked out.
Director/designer Frank Cwiklik's fertile imagination is evident from the moment the audience enters. A faux radio show plays over the P.A. system, the D.J. giving away free tickets to the performance. Listeners enthusiastically call in. Then, as the lights dim, the scratchy sound of a needle hitting a vinyl LP is heard. With no further invocation needed, the show begins, unleashing a torrent of sensory invention that stimulates (and occasionally overwhelms) the audience. Screaming fans storm the stage and throw themselves at the performers. Video images flood the show's three portable screens. Lights flash with every hum and throb of the rhythm section. Performers wail, croon, and cavort (thanks to Becky Byers's effective and straightforward choreography). And, a live band—collectively dubbed The Badass Studio Orchestra—plays full-on only feet from the audience. All the while, in what has become one of his trademarks, Cwiklik runs the light and sound cues from stage level in full view of the audience, presiding over the theatrical landscape he's created while also making himself a part of it.
It's a whirlwind tour that packs a lot of ingenuity, but may leave viewers wondering as to what purpose. Taking Liberties never quite decides what it wants to be. Some songs, like "Shot With His Own Gun" and "Crimes of Paris," get the live music video treatment as short little narratives play out for their duration. Cwiklik & Co. go one step further with "Flutter and Wow," during which actual video footage plays on screen while the song accompanies it. Other songs, like "Baby Plays Around" and "I Want You," are performed straight up like a concert. While both approaches work, Taking Liberties doesn't favor one or the other, which makes it difficult to determine what (beyond pure showmanship) it's trying to achieve.
Also, as is perhaps unavoidable for a show this ambitious, there are some matters of execution that could use tweaking. While Taking Liberties isn't a strict jukebox musical, a hint of dramatic throughline might make the show's elements more cohesive. As it stands now, all the musical numbers exist independently of each other. Song selection and sequencing is also problematic. The show favors ballads and mid-tempo songs over Costello's up-tempo ravers, so there's not quite enough rockin' and rollin' to justify the show's "badass" moniker. Audience members hoping to hear classics like "Radio Radio," "Pump it Up," and "Oliver's Army" will be sorely disappointed: the most famous Costello cuts here are "Accidents Will Happen" and "Everyday I Write the Book."
The cast, however, is mostly terrific, made up of likable performers who know how to sell a rock song. Highlights include Elaine Moran's torch song-ish interpretation of "Almost Blue," Adam Enright's jangly rendition of "Beaten to the Punch," Evan Toth's memorably Costello-esque take on "Flutter and Wow," and Brianna Tyson's knock-down drag-out performance of "I Want You." Under the stewardship of musical director Adam Swiderski, the Badass Studio Orchestra is tight and versatile and more than lives up to its name. (Swiderski's lead vocal on "Brilliant Mistake" is also a high point.)
All in all, Taking Liberties has plenty to recommend it, including a crash course introduction to some deep cuts by one of rock's master songwriters. The first installment in DMTheatrics's new performance series presents a great idea that has lots of room to become even greater still.