All Fall Down
nytheatre.com review by Robin Rothstein
October 10, 2009
All Fall Down, a new musical being presented at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, explores why a teenage boy inexplicably jumps out of his dorm room window and how his "normal" American family deal with this unexpected incident. While the piece touches on relevant issues and possesses some very strong components, All Fall Down, as it currently stands, doesn't quite add up yet.
At the beginning of All Fall Down, we are introduced to the smart, stable, college-bound Ben Little, his hard-to-please father Neil, his Donna Reed-like mother, Sarah, and his spirited, champagne-drinking, Court-TV-watching grandmother, Evelyn. When sure-footed Ben goes off to college, though, he has trouble keeping himself together, becoming distracted by late-night parties, friends, and his roommate's girlfriend, Emily. When Emily inevitably breaks Ben's heart, something snaps in Ben, and jumping out of his dorm room window suddenly seems like the right thing to do. Ben survives the six-story fall, and after some time in the hospital, returns home to recover. Neil, Sarah, and Evelyn make a pact not to bring up the jumping incident with Ben until he is ready to talk about it. Ben, meanwhile, chooses to wait for his family to ask him why he jumped, rather than bring it up on his own. While each camp waits for the other to bring up the elephant in the room, Ben delves into pivotal moments in his past that may have led up to his leap. In the end, though, everyone choosing not to communicate becomes the overriding conflict, which, unfortunately, is not an active enough obstacle on its own to sustain a full-length musical.
Selda Sahin's music and lyrics are the show's highlight. Her score possesses a unique contemporary style that is emotionally compelling, and her lyrics have a lovely colloquial quality that symbiotically supports her score's folk/rock-influenced sound. It is only in Act Two, when character transformations are sudden and unearned, that the music and lyrics inevitably devolve into commonness and cliche. Greg Turner's book starts from an intriguing premise, and his blending of linear and episodic structures is different and refreshing, but his storytelling ultimately lacks confidence. For example, he introduces a number of intriguing psychological stressors, including clear hints of an Oedipal complex, and deep-seated father-son issues, but these inner tensions are left unexplored, excused as a joke, even as the presence of these tensions hovers over the course of the show.
The cast of All Fall Down is superb. Jenn Colella shows great acting chops as both Ben's mother, Sarah, and college co-ed Emily. Mary Testa is a laugh-out-loud comic genius, especially in her roles as various college students. Charlie Pollock does his best to humanize the not very likable and rather one-dimensional Neil, and Casey Predovic as Ben is an absolutely charming talent who has a long career ahead of him. Directors Lonny Price and Matt Cowart infuse All Fall Down with a nice quirky humanity and their staging is impressively imaginative given the small playing area. Ren Iadassor's simple costume design serves the many quick character shifts, and John Burkland's understated lighting and Raul Abrego's innovative vertical set do a nice job supporting the literal and metaphorical action of the play and suggesting the various locations.
The current Broadway hit Next To Normal, about a family's quest for normalcy amidst internal crisis, also started at NYMF, and it took a number of rewrites to get that show to its current incarnation. With its empathic score and powerful underlying themes, All Fall Down, like Next To Normal, has the potential to be a much more realized piece if the writers can find a way to truly own the story and address the inherent scarier issues more head on. As it stands, All Fall Down is basically at a good jumping-off point, and is the kind of show that, after a few artistic leaps, could one day land firmly and triumphantly on its feet.