Review by Bob Greene
There are many ways to unveil a new and exciting stage work. One of the most accessible – and safest – is the industry presentation. An invite-only event where a new and topical piece – in this case, a musical – is unveiled to a crowd, educated in the artform for feedback and networking. A recent and quite successful case is RELAPSE, THE MUSICAL.
Producer Jay Michaels – possessing vast and commendable knowledge of the independent theatre scene – placed this event at the well-known Playwrights Horizons, and kept his shrewdness going by gathering a strong team to helm it. Two-time Tony-nominated director, Joe McKneely, banded with Broadway musician, Mark Galinovsky, to present a superior example of this type of presentation.
The piece itself is powerful and certainly timely. Book & lyric writer, Justin Giachetti, and music composer, Louis A. Josephson, offered us a deeply moving exploration into the souls and psyches of six denizens of a drug rehab center. Clever word-play by Giachetti was enhanced by soaring melodies supplied by Josephson.
These two young up-and-certainly-coming musical artists’ work would have been commendable in the hands of any qualified professional (it’s that good), but when given to the likes of the skilled and inventive McKneely, the project benefited grandly.
Utilizing simple tricks with music stands, subtle movement, and strong choices for his actors, McKneely peppered the emotional material with an edginess that made for an entertaining and engrossing evening. Galinovsky’s hand with the artists and on the piano was both subtle and striking, opening the doors for beautiful harmonies (supplied by Josephson) and leaving enough room for Giachetti’s banter in both song and scene to be delivered with power.
The cast rose to the occasion of the material and the team. Audree Hedequist brought a pain that was deafening amid her more-often silence as Melinda; Ryan Hurley (as gay bulimic Bryan) and Ava Diane Tyson (as pyromaniac Kendra) found humor (very dark humor, that is) before bringing down the house with their own musical numbers; Steven Makropoulos echoed the “doctor” in Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box as an omnipresent therapist with his own mental issues; but it was Jacob Ryan Smith and “Voice” celebrity, We’ Ani McDonald who served as the anchor as Andy, the budding songwriter, who suffered the titular “relapse” and the therapist who saw something in him that even he didn’t. It was their stunning vocals that allowed them to step out of what seemed to be an ensemble piece.
That fact that this “seemed” to be an ensemble piece, is its undeniable flaw. It seems to be ensemble only in that no one seems to be designed as the lead. Maybe it’s Jacob that seems to be the lead but We’ has the show-stopping tune but Ava has that stronger story, but Ryan offers the most pathos, but Melinda … you get the point. Focusing each storyline and making tough decisions as to what the prevailing plot needs to be would turn this into a winning piece – even at this early gestation.
Relapse looks like it can fit into the current level of Broadway musical if we assume the trend formulated by RENT, Jagged Little Pill, Dear Evan Hanson, and A Strange Loop continues – and if some wise moves are made in future generations of this promising piece.