By Ron Fassler
“Well hello” are the first words spoken by Abigail Bengson, co-host and narrator of The Lucky Ones, the world premiere musical she has written with her husband Shaun Bengson, and with whom she shares the stage the entire evening. The program lists the playwright Sarah Gancher as a co-writer of the book, whose contributions undoubtedly merit her credit. But nothing can take away from this being wholly Abigail’s story—her family’s story—in fact; all of it laid bare on the stage of the Connelly Theatre in the East Village for two hours and twenty minutes of song, dance and drama. It is mesmerizing.
With an honesty and intensity that at times can feel like we, as an audience, are intruding on the pain and suffering of others, The Lucky Ones belongs to that style of theatre that took command in American drama post World War II: the memory play. Think of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie or Arthur Miller’s A Memory of Two Mondays, with their protagonists (fill-ins for the authors themselves) standing outside and then stepping within the story of which they are themselves an integral part (and are willing to share with us).
Don’t mistake for a moment that from the almost distracted manner the show begins that we are in for a casual night. When Abigail enters and begins speaking, the house lights are still full. She distracts us with her charm, making jokes, telling us a bit of history of the Connelly Theatre (fascinating), then essentially instructs us to sit back, relax and enjoy the show, though not without first warning us tongue in cheek, that what we are about to see “is a true story. Even the parts that never happened.” From its rocking opening number, the feeling that something special is being promised, proceeds to be delivered with an energy and a forthrightness by a flawless cast that numbers eighteen. I’m sure for anyone lucky enough, back in 1996, to have seen the original cast of Rent perform on the very same street (East 4th), will have those twenty-two years rush back in a nanosecond.
The story Abigail tells is that of the unorthodox upbringing by her somewhat sprawling family; all of whom she felt were kindred spirits (at least in childhood). Her mother (Myra Lucretia Taylor), is a warm (and we are led believe), wise and nurturing woman; her father (Tom Nelis), is a kind and intelligent hippie-type man of the earth, though who later evolves into a self-made man of the cloth (a troubling sign from the get-go). Abigail’s sisters, Emily and Phoebe (Ashley Pérez Flanagan and Jennifer Morris), cousins Kai and Amber (Damon Daunno and Amelia Workman), their mother Mary (Maryann Plunkett), and a teenager (Adina Verson) who comes under their care, are all enmeshed in the story’s plot. And, as it happened enmeshed in life as well, living as they did in houses next door to one another, and all part of a progressive school they founded on the same property. The end of Act One’s inciting incident leads to an Act Two that finds all of the characters searching, in varying degrees, for a deliverance from the pain suddenly thrust upon them. Each of these gifted actors find the ambivalence in their respective roles, and are unstinting in their heartfelt portrayals (aided, in many cases, by exceptionally strong singing voices).
The Lucky Ones, with its mix of rock, bluegrass, folk and pop, is the second theatrical endeavor crafted by The Bengsons, an electro-folk band that also consists of Dani Markham (drums) and Pearl Rhein (keyboard, fiddler and accordion). In the same autobiographical quasi-concert form, an earlier work titled Hundred Days, explored the early days of Abigail and Shaun’s marriage. If they are fortunate enough to continue in collaboration on other projects with as talented a director as Anne Kauffman (who does excellent work here), and a choreographer like Sonya Teyeh (whose imagination knows no bounds), these craftspeople may be on to creating new and exciting takes on stories, by busting them wide open in ways hitherto known to us, theatrically speaking.
The Lucky Ones is a nothing less than a musical confession of the soul.
“Well hello,” indeed.”
The Lucky Ones
Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4thStreet, NYC
Thru April 28.