Return To The Onion Cellar
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
August 16, 2010
With the advent of musicals like Broadway's American Idiot, a rock opera with little actual dialogue that addresses a story through the themes and feelings generated by its music, rather than conventional musical theatre storytelling, the landscape of the American Musical seems to be shifting. Return to the Onion Cellar, conceived wholly by writer-composer-performer Samantha Boyd and playing at this year's New York International Fringe Festival, is another step toward this musical evolution.
Return to the Onion Cellar, set in either a dark future or some shadowy alternate version of our world (it's never made clear exactly which), follows the story of the staff and patrons of the Onion Cellar, an underground cabaret bar where people come to let their feelings loose in a world where emotion seems to be outlawed by the current regime. This emotional release is achieved in a rather unusual way: patrons take the open mic onstage and cut into an onion (an illegal item in this world) which causes a spontaneous outpouring of their feelings through song (an ingenious little touch to justify people bursting into song).
The show delves into several taboo themes, touching on the subjects of rape, sexual abuse, gender issues, and alcoholism, to name a few. It also dabbles in meta–theatre, as writer/composer Samantha Boyd serves as an omniscient narrator (a la the Emcee in Cabaret) and most characters acknowledge that they are characters in the world she created, following her script. It's this range of subjects and approaches that make Return to the Onion Cellar's book a bit too unfocused. It feels like the show never really commits to what it wants to say. One of the points brought up by Boyd's meta-theatre approach is that life is unpredictable—there is no script and there is no point or master plan; no necessary reason or importance behind events. However, since the narrative and scenes in the show adhere to that idea, most of the book feels chaotic and it's difficult to decide who to care about. Ironically, small interludes between Boyd and the guitarist in the "house band," Gunter, arguing about whether anything Gunter did was real at all or if it was all in her script, ended up being the most engaging scenes.
However, Return to the Onion Cellar's superb music holds the show together. With songs ranging from ballad to rock to rapid fire Bob Dylan-esque talk-singing, Boyd is a truly gifted composer (and possibly an even more gifted musician: she plays a saw with a bow at one point). The Onion Cellar "house band" (with Boyd on piano, Ben Reichman on guitar, and Emiliano Flowerman on drums) are all extremely talented musicians and, teamed with the invested, energetic cast, they bring Boyd's great compositions roaring to life. Highlighted by "Going Under" (a sprawling multi-vocal part song performed by the company), "Write What You Know" (an emotional solo piano piece performed by Boyd), and basically any number that performer Katie Venezia headed up (she lit up the stage every time she started singing), Boyd's music is this piece's true heart. The songs do such a good job of conveying the show's feeling, it makes me wonder what a future draft of Onion Cellar would be like with a little less book and a little more music.
Despite the plethora of other themes brought out by the show's book, its music seems to focus on an overall important issue: people don't allow themselves to feel enough anymore. Often, we bottle things up and put on a strong front, usually to our own detriment. Return to the Onion Cellar assures us that it's ok to feel; and its strong, emotive music makes sure we do.