A rock musical for the head and the heart.
By Jordan Cohen
Ars Nova, one of New York’s finest incubators for early-stage work, has joined forces with The Play Company to produce The Wildness: Sky-Pony’s Rock Fairy Tale, an intimate and emotionally ripe rock musical. The founders of Sky-Pony, a Brooklyn-based rock band, are two rising stars of musical theatre – Lauren Worsham (text co-author and Lauren/Zira), a Tony nominee for Gentleman’s Guide, and Kyle Jarrow (text co-author, songs, keyboard, and Voice from the Boombox), an OBIE winner and writer for the Broadway-bound SpongeBob Musical.
Together, the pair has invented a show that is equal parts children’s fable, rock spectacle (a truly sensorial feast), and support group for self-doubting millennials. And while this proves to be an ambitious agenda for one evening, the musical is mostly successful in fusing these elements to support the underlying message of the evening: despite the stories we use to shield ourselves from the harsh realities of adulthood, we all must one day step into the darkness, for better or worse.
Two plots run parallel in the production. In one, a group of performers – vaguely fictionalized versions of the cast (they go by their real names) – gather to fulfill a yearly ritual intended to purge their “fears and doubts” as young creative types new to the city. This ritual is a performance of a rock musical called The Wildness, which they wrote together many years ago. This year, however, one of the key members of the group has gone missing and mourning his loss becomes a central conceit of the storyline. The second plot unfolds through the performance of the musical, a fairy tale centered on two young girls: Zira, a commoner, and Ada, a royal (a terrific Lilli Cooper), who live in a village held hostage by dragons. But when the girls venture into the woods one night, they discover there are no dragons at all, that it’s a lie passed down to shield the villagers from something worse than dragons: the actual world. What they find instead is a mysterious house that functions as a sort of Pandora’s Box throughout the rest of the show.
The musical takes many twists and turns, shifts its tone on a dime, and delights with unexpected and whimsical meta-theatrics and rituals intended to build community amongst audience and performers. For example, we partake in the “Eating of the Candy” (Jolly Ranchers, passed around); we blindfold ourselves as the girls enter the house (the effect, thanks to the lights and music, is fantastical and disorienting); and we recite, in unison, “You’re not alone,” in response to both audience and cast members performing “over-shares” – short confessional monologues which interrupt the fairy tale and reveal their anxieties associated with being young and alive.
If this all sounds like a bit much, I promise it’s easier to follow than it sounds. Much credit goes to the director, Sam Buntrock, whose ingenious Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park with George earned raves in 2008. He keeps the action swift and maintains laser focus on the complexities of the storytelling. Endless praise should also be heaped on Brian Tovar, whose lighting is nothing short of miraculous. He builds rich and vivid worlds and provides crucial focus in a show with sometimes a bit too much stimuli. Tilly Grimes’s costumes successfully blend quirky mismatch and aesthetic uniformity and the set design by Kris Stone, which consists mainly of a long alley stage and raised platforms for the musicians, serves the production well. Projections, by Alex Basco Koch, draw us deeper and deeper into the worlds as the show progresses.
The score is rich with melodic ballads that seem to start small and grow in intensity as they progress. While I’d have welcomed more musical variation, a few stand out numbers, wonderfully performed by Worsham and Cooper (such as the haunting “Run Away” and the bitter-sweet “Everyone Will Die”), remained in my head well after leaving the theatre. Katie Lee Hill and Sharone Sayegh deliver cheeky back-up vocals and execute much of Chase Brock’s choreography throughout the evening.
While some might find the whimsy and emotions of The Wildness a bit overblown, there is much to like in this production and many reasons to hope it’s just the beginning for a show that contains as much heart as it does invention.
Ars Nova 511 West 54 St. extended thru March 26th, www.arsnovanyc.com