Book, Music & Lyrics by Gregg Coffin
Directed by Brett A. Bernardini
at Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich, CT through April 7
Family. Some are super-close, and that's a great thing. Others, well, are more complicated. Sometimes you love someone very much and still want to slap them around. I'm not advocating for domestic abuse, but after seeing the musical Convenience at Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich, I can better understand the compulsion to caress someone you love and backhand them at the same time.
These conflicting emotions are at the center of Convenience and pretty much encapsulate my feelings toward the SBT production. This sung-through drama centers on the long-standing tension between Liz and her 26-year-old son, Vince. Rooted in the abandonment issues surrounding the departure of Liz's husband/Vince's father, they are no longer able to communicate without fighting.
Both of them have big secrets: Vince is gay and has moved in with his boyfriend; Liz is weighing a marriage proposal from Vince's former mentor. Things inevitably will come to a head when Vince goes home with the intention of finally telling his mother about his sexuality. Can they get past their simmering resentments long enough to finally reveal themselves to each other? Does a bear you-know-what in the woods?
So, seizing the spirit of the play(and family dynamics everywhere), I'm going to split my review into the things that make me want to hug Convenience and and then I'm going to smack it in the kisser.
First, the hugs. The composer and lyricist are one and the same, the talented Gregg Coffin. The music is melodic and the lyrics are richly complex. Eschewing traditional show tune forms and pop sensibilities, the songs are tricky and reveal everything-and I mean everything. The characters communicate their anxiety and each song is a journey in miniature.
The cast is filled with extremely talented individuals. Because of the difficulty of the score, one needs a group of actors with Olympian fortitude to get through the show intact. Everyone strives mightily, but Zachary Gregus and Erica LuBonte as the contemporary versions of Vince and Liz have the most work to do and sing their parts wonderfully well. The production's director, Brett A. Bernardini, excels in the role of Abe, the only character I was actually rooting for in the whole show (but mainly rooting for him to get on a plane and run away from the rest of the characters. Escape, Abe! Run!).
The production is beautifully designed, particularly the gorgeous set by the always-dependable Mike Billings. A simple platform framed by a skewed proscenium backs up to a clever wall of moving boxes, a nice tip of the hat to the, errr, moving finale of the show, a song aptly titled "Moving Day."
Now for the smacks. Whether inherent in the show's book (also written by Coffin) or because of Bernardini's direction, the production sacrifices the subtle dynamics at play in a family. Is Liz really an ogre? Everyone says she is, but she pretty much seems like most divorced parents that struggle to do the work of two people. We are given little reason as to why she needs to keep her pending engagement a secret or why she would sacrifice her happiness for a son who left her ten years ago.
The same goes for Vince's big "secret." We have no indicator that this will be an issue for Liz and it is rapidly becoming less of a big deal as time goes by. His first time home in years, the two light into each other with such coldness and ferocity that one wonders how the audience is going to warm up to this emotionally remote duo. The show sits there wringing its hands for most of the time, until Liz and Vince start nurturing and listening to their inner children, at which point I started bazooka-barfing in my brain.
As "Young Liz," the fantastic Anne Fowler seems too young. I thought she was Vince's little sister at first. When I finally realized she was his mother, I thought, "Wasn't this the actor who was just playing a NINE YEAR OLD in Dani Girl at SBT last month? Talented, Fowler is. That talented? Well...
The cast is rounded out by Jason Slattery playing Ethan, Vince's lover, AND "Young Vince" (yes, Vince makes sweet love to his younger self - calling Dr. Freud!). Although meant to be comic relief, Slattery resorts to a mince-trel show's worth of gay stereotypes, rendering the character more appalling than appealing. Although in possession of an agile singing voice, he blares out his tenor at air-raid siren levels, leveling the intimate 76-seat-theatre. Yes, he actually made my ears hurt.