By Stanford Friedman
The degree to which you will enjoy the solemn new musical, Spot on the Wall, is equal to the amount of tolerance you have for a pair of museum statues that come to life and manifest as characters from Greek mythology. That is, when they are not busy transforming into a pair of contemporary lost lovers or engaging in multiple bouts of interpretive dance in the middle of otherwise traditionally staged musical numbers. If this set up sounds like a risky gambit, well, it is, and that can only mean that the New York Musical Theatre Festival has once again hit town.
This early entry in this year’s festival of 52 productions could have been a convoluted mess, but Kevin Jaeger’s precise book and Devin Dunne Cannon’s clear direction keep the story straight and true, at least until intermission. The setting is a contemporary art museum on the day that a photo exhibition by Paul (Robert Hager) is about to open. But the play begins a little earlier than that, say about 700 BC. We find the Museum Curator (Charles West) standing in front of statues of Apollo and Daphne (Michael Warrell and Lisa Kuhnen, dressed in marble white). The statues twirl to modern ballet choreography by Allicia Lawson as the Curator explains to us the myth of these doomed characters, how Cupid struck Apollo with the gold arrow of love, but dinged Daphne with the leaden quiver of not-tonight-I-have-an-arrow-induced-headache.
From this origin story, the action spins out in many a related direction. The statues turn out to have been sculpted by Paul’s recently deceased mother, whose name, apparently, was also Daphne. The Curator and Daphne were once intimate and we watch their story in a series of flashbacks performed by Warrell and Kuhnen without aid of a costume change. Both dancer/actors turn in strong performances and Warrell is close enough in affect and appearance to West, give or take a bulging bicep, to make the scenes feel emotionally honest.
Meanwhile, Paul’s wealthy father (Neal Mayer) is angry at the world and Paul’s girlfriend, Laurel (Madison Stratton), is in competition to take over the Curator position, though in no position to deal with Paul’s moodiness. Her extended voice mail messages to Paul provide a few moments of comic stress relief in a show which is otherwise concerned with sacrifice, loss, unspoken truths and dying. Hager has a fine voice but fails to make Paul a sympathetic protagonist, and having him vanish for much of a fairly unstructured second act does not help matters (Similarly, Warrell’s Apollo is frozen in place, neglected, for much of the act.). Veteran Broadway actor West fairs much better in creating a damaged but lovable soul.
The score, with lyrics by Mr. Jaeger and music by Alex Mitchell is primarily recitative, broken up by two strong numbers. In the haunting ballad Your Eyes, Laurel and the Curator both meditate on their distant lovers, and in Just Keep Living, Paul’s father half drunkenly works a room full of art patrons before the song evolves from patter into a full realization of his grief, “Oh, that’s so kind of you to say./I just keep living day to day.” An offstage trio of guitar, violin and bass was an inspired choice, and the uncredited sound team serves up excellent acoustics in this trusty old space that is normally home to the Mint Theater Company.
In retrospect, Just Keep Living provides fine counterpoint to what we learn was Paul’s habit of photographing each new sunrise while his mother was hospitalized, as a way of offering her a dose of daily hope. And if ever there was an image to build a song around that would be it, but we are left wanting. Instead we are given several reprises of the opening number, Living Life in a Museum. Alas, repeatedly hearing that a museum is a place to “hang your heartache on the wall” is not doing anyone any favors.
Spot on the Wall – Book and Lyrics by Kevin Jaeger, Music by Alex Mitchell; Directed by Devin Dunne Cannon.
WITH: Robert Hager (Paul), Madison Stratton (Laurel), Lisa Kuhnen (Daphne), Michael Warrell (Apollo), Neal Mayer (Father) and Charles West (Curator).
Choreography by Allicia Lawson; Lighting Design by Jamie Roderick; Costume Design by Joey Haws; Set Design by Alex D. Gorgone; Katie Kavett, production stage manager; The New York Musical Theatre Festival at Theater 3, 311 West 43rd Street, 866-811-4111, http://www.spotonthewall.com/. Remaining Performances – Friday, July 10 at 5:00 pm, Saturday, July 11 at 9:00 pm, Sunday, July 12 at 12:00 pm, Tuesday, July 14 at 5:00 pm. Running Time: 2 Hours