No animals were harmed in the staging of As We Lie Still, an entry in this year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival, but several fake doves and a lump of fur made to resemble a rabbit do get manhandled. Also, plot lines suffer some disfiguring twists and more than one song falls prey to cliché. To say that death is in the air would be to understate the point of the play. To say that a rainbow is a central metaphor of the piece is to indicate that the book could use a little work.
Employing a projection screen, six crates, a piano, a guitar and a drum set, this Dallas-based troop goes about presenting the tale of Avi (Michael A. Robinson), a washed up vaudeville magician who, in 1920, finds himself hospitalized with a bad ticker. He spends his days visiting with Hope (Erika Larsen), a young woman with a lot of time to kill since her war damaged lover lies comatose throughout Act 1. Avi fills their sad hours with the story of his rise to near fame, circa 1900. In staged flashbacks, a young Avi (Travis Stuebing) hires a lovely assistant, Josephine (Olivia de Guzman Emile), and before we know it they have perfected a trick to end all tricks. Let’s just say that it involves gunplay and a ridiculous amount of faith on Josephine’s part. Then things get weird. Josephine, in apparent day trips to purgatory, becomes the love interest of Azriel (George Michael Ferrie, Jr.), an ethereal, and quite tall, gatekeeper to the great beyond. Love triangles are tricky enough, but throw in time travel, magical curses and post-corporeal hugs, and a musical will soon enough come off its tracks.
Robinson sings in a gruff baritone and grows more comfortable in his role as the evening progresses. Were it not for the play’s strange interludes with the afterlife, his Avi would have our sympathies. But the specter of Azriel confuses the issue. Only in dead-ville to things get truly lively, and it is a mixed blessing that Ferrie’s beautifully rendered ballad of the netherworld, “Street of Mine,” is the most dynamic of the show’s 15 numbers. Robinson, it should be noted, also designed the smart costumes. He chose shades of black and sepia for the living, to mesh with the silent movie era screen projections which are used to denote each scene’s place and time. But in purgatory, peach robes are apparently all the rage.
Emile is in fine voice, but her Josephine’s devotion to Avi is hard to fathom and a baby she gives up for adoption is more a device than a believable sacrifice. Meanwhile, it is a toss-up as to which of the two minor leads have the more thankless task. As Michael, Greenspan spends nearly the entire production covered up to his neck with a blanket. He has only slightly more to do in the flashback scenes where he plays Young Avi’s feeble-minded stagehand, Billy. In a bit of sequencing that makes no sense, Act 1 ends with Billy singing a relatively upbeat tune about the “Life of a Stagehand.” Meanwhile, Erika Larsen spends much of the time being physically upstaged by the horizontal Michael, while having to deal with the metaphorical weight of her character’s name. Hope’s big number is called “Next Stop, Hope,” and just as Larsen’s strong voice rises with emotion, she is straddled with a lyric like, “My faith is a train with no whistle.” Unfortunately, she also wins the prize for the evening’s worst wig, no small feat given that Avi’s hair is approximately five times thicker than that of his younger self.
As We Lie Still – Book by Olivia de Guzman; Music and Lyrics by Patrick Emile; directed by Michael Serrecchia
WITH: Olivia de Guzman Emile (Josephine), George Michael Ferrie, Jr. (Azriel), Clinton Greenspan (Michael/Billy), Erika Larsen (Hope), Michael A. Robinson (Old Avi) and Travis Stuebing (Young Avi).
Musical Director, Rachel Olsen; Lighting Design, Sarah Abigail Hoke-Brady; Stage Manager, Sarah Duc; At the PTC Performance Space, 555 West 42nd Street, 212-352-3101, Remaining Performances -Tuesday, July 22 at 9:00 pm, Thursday, July 24 at 5:00 pm, Sunday, July 27 at 5:00 pm, http://www.nymf.org/tickets/2014-events/we-lie-still,Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes.