By Stanford Friedman
Just three months ago, Jim Shankman’s drama, Heartless Bastard, popped up at the HERE Arts Center in a sharp, twisted and vital production. So, it is especially disappointing that, even with the same director and the same venue, his new musical, Billy and the Killers, is such a lackluster and mopey affair. Though the title character is actually innocent of any homicides, this production is guilty of several crimes. These include harboring an uninteresting minor, operating a fog machine with intent to choke, lyric writing without a poetic license and, most egregiously, failure to rock when given the right of way.
Billy (Adrian Blake Enscoe) is your basic disenfranchised teen. Living in a trailer with his kind and down on his luck father, JRoy (Tom O’Keefe), he writes dark songs and paints disturbing pictures that get him expelled from school but which impress the hot, blonde rebel, Nell (Sydney Shepherd). When Nell turns up dead, Billy gets framed, JRoy gets vengeful and the fog machine goes into overdrive. The show is promoted as, “a play meets a rock band,” which is a fair interpretation. Most of the dozen songs occur outside of the action, with the characters picking up instruments and performing concert style, backed by an on-stage quartet. Synergistically, Mr. Enscoe and Ms. Shepherd are also two-thirds of a real-life Brooklyn band called Bandits on the Run. Unfortunately, here they have nowhere to go.
Mr. Enscoe exudes innocence and indifference, but brings no depth or contour to the performance. There should be a threatening edge to Billy but, for all his self-proclaimed darkness, he never seems dark. When he ultimately figures out the identity of the true killer, his reaction is so underwhelming that you want to reach out and slap him. His voice and guitar playing are fine, if uncharismatic. Needing to be channeling Jagger or Prince, he seems instead to just be going through the paces. Ms. Shepherd picks up the slack as best she can. Her strong, sure voice energizes the show whenever she goes to the mic. And she performs many of her numbers while playing the cello, which is a treat to take in, but makes little sense in the context of her character. Mr. O’Keefe brings just the right amount of understated dignity to JRoy. The part is written so over-sympathetically that any other interpretation would have been sucrose. He even pulls off a country ballad to his absent wife. Rounding out the ensemble, Paul Sadlik is the nasty detective, Spenders, and Broadway vet Sean McDermott is the even nastier lawyer, Merrick.
All the cast is under-served by the score. Peter Stopschinski’s music had the audience sitting still for 100 minutes while Mr. Shankman’s lyrics are a downward spiral of end rhymes. “I woke up in the pouring rain/He kissed me once I went insane,” sings Nell. “Pay back all the time you borrow/Then you die in pain and sorrow/Pray you won’t be here tomorrow,” laments Billy. Scenic designer Margaux Maeght divides up the stage with rows of silver poles, creating little prisons everywhere. Maybe all the fog was meant to be a diversionary tactic, but I never felt like we were inside the doublewide trailer where much of the action occurs.
Billy and the Killers – Book & Lyrics by Jim Shankman, music by Peter Stopschinski; directed by Craig J. George.
WITH: Adrian Blake Enscoe (Billy), Sydney Shepherd (Nell), Sean McDermott (Merrick), Tom O’Keefe (J Roy) and Paul Sadlik (Spenders).
Scenic design by Margaux Maeght, lighting design by Cha See, costume design by Glenna Ryer, sound design by Rafe Terrizzi, stage managed by Scott Winton Wray. The SubletSeries@HERE, HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, 212.352.3101, http://here.org/shows/detail/1958/. Through November 18. Running time: 100 minutes.