Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
Into the West
October 09, 2011
Recapturing theatrical magic can be a tricky thing. Take Austin, Texas’ own Rude Mechs. The theatrical troupe created a sensation in Los Angeles this spring as part of RADAR LA, the first installment in the West Coast version of the cutting edge international theater festival, Under the Radar. Center Theater Group’s contribution to the festival was a short run of The Method Gun by Krik Lynn that was off-beat, funny and surprisingly beautiful in the most unexpected ways. So it was good thinking to bring the troupe back again this fall with a new musical, I’ve Never Been so Happy with book and lyrics from Lynn in collaboration with composer Peter Stopschinski. The work premiered last April in Austin and the show opened Saturday in its West Coast premiere. Even walking into the Douglas reassured one that the night would be something unexpected and exciting. The entire lobby of the Kirk Douglas Theater had been redecorated with Western kitsch from hay on the floor to saloon doors around the concession stand. Audience members are shuttled into a makeshift dressing room and costumed in 10-gallon hats, bonnets and any variety of vests and Western wear.
All this activity made for one amped up pre-show, and, entering the theater, the audience is greeted with a massive multi-level barn floor stage complete with a small pit for four strings, guitar player and keyboards as the cast mills about in a warm up for the promised hootenanny. So what could go wrong? Well even in Texas, it appears the play’s the thing. I’ve Never Been so Happy is reliant on a rather flimsy premise about the host of a family-oriented Country and Western television (or radio?) variety program, which stars his daughter Annabellee, who is eager to get out from under her father’s very overprotective wing. He wants her married before she can leave home and she agrees to let him pick the groom in an effort to make this happen and for her to inherit all of his land in a King Lear sort of twist. The groom-to-be, as it turns out, will be Jeremy, an 18 year-old just evicted from his mother’s wymyn’s commune in the surrounding area due to his gender and age. That mother, Julie, believes tying her son to the last mountain lion in Texas is the way to go to achieve this. As with The Method Gun there are numerous quirky touches here including Lynn’s fondness for anthropomorphism. The mountain lion as well as twin pet dachshunds Siegfried and Siegmunda are all voiced by human actors and have substantial singing parts with their owners. None of this works as well as the roaming unexplained tiger in The Method Gun but the intent is the same.
Of course, a sophisticated or profound scenario is not necessary for a comedy, but I’ve Never Been so Happy squanders golden material at every turn like a 12:45 AM SNL skit. Nothing much is ever made of the fact that part of the show is set in a family TV show or that the wymyn’s commune coexists in the same sphere as it. Instead the focus stays on the dogs and the mostly-imaginary love story. All of this might not be such of an issue, of course, if the music could save the day but it rarely does. The closing number, “I’ve Never Been so Happy” and Annabellee’s big Act I number “Everything’s Tied” are the only two that work. Stranger yet, very little of the music references Country and Western musical traditions, instead going for a less-involved Stephen Schwartz feel. At other times the musical choices are puzzling. Both acts start with down tempo duets which douses the audience with cold water from the minute the curtain goes up. The musical production values are off as well with strained and off pitch vocalism from many in the cast. There are exceptions. I was taken with E. Jason Liebrecht's Jeremy and Cami Alys's stage time as Julie. I longed for the sharp word play and irreverence of The Method Gun in Never Been’s lyrics, but until the very finale they were elusive.
There is something to all this I think. I imagine that the show could be construed as a commentary on the Western or perhaps even Texan character. The kitsch of the pre-show provides further commentary on the intimate and conflicting strains that make up the people of the West and the mountain lion serves as a metaphor for the Western spirit that is easily lost in the conflict of ideals that populates so much of today’s world. But this too seemed to slip through the fingers too easily in I’ve Never Been so Happy. CTG has a record of turning out some remarkable hits from the Douglas space and the ghost of Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson fills the theater with this kind of material. But I’ve Never Been so Happy is a long way from that success, I’d wager, even if the promised self-love of the title is the first step in getting others to love you as well. The show runs through October 23 at the Kirk Douglas Theater.