We hear the notes of a piano followed by an announcement, “ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to see is real magic”, exclaims Avi Leiter (Travis Stuebing) before adding, “but don’t despair, it’s still just a trick”. With the playfully ominous tone of a charlatan who craves nothing else but glory, Avi continues repeating this warning as we see the rest of the company join into a sweepingly beautiful sextet as they take their places across the stage, making us wonder where the story will take them. Just like that As We Lie Still has us under its spell.
Next, we’re in a room at Bellevue Hospital in New York in 1920, where an older Avi (Michael A. Robinson) is telling stories to a young woman named Hope (Erika Larsen), trying to distract her in her tense vigil as she sits next to her husband (Clinton Greenspan), a soldier who has remained unconscious after being rescued from a train crash. The charming Avi explains to Hope how once, he was a famous magician known as “The Great Marduke”, whose most popular trick was bringing people back from the dead.
The show then takes us back in time as Avi reminisces about his beautiful assistant Josephine (Olivia de Guzman Emile) and how she helped him perfect his magic masterpiece. A strange romance bloomed between them, but little did Avi know that in her transitions to and from the afterlife, Josephine became fixated on the Angel of Death, Azriel (George Michael Ferrie, Jr.) who would become his rival in both love and business.
Expertly directed by Michael Serrecchia, As We Lie Still is an exemplary musical that never shies away from the exaggerated nature of its genre, even relishing in the melodrama involved in overexposition. Feelings are at skin level, as the performers pour out their souls through the gorgeous compositions by Patrick Emile. In the touching ballad “Street of Mine”, Azriel reveals the loneliness he feels as he performs a duty assigned to him by someone who abandoned him, while in “Here Where I Stand”, Josephine is allowed a chance at happiness, even if it’s tinged with melancholy.
The musical is obsessed with time and Serrecchia cleverly has the entire company onstage during every scene, as if to represent the space and time continuum, and how all of these events and characters are constantly being shared. The smart clever design consisting of a few wooden crates and fabrics, effortlessly are transformed from hospital beds into performance stages, reminding us that the greatest tricks are those we never see coming.
The performers too are terrific, with Ferrie, Jr. and de Guzman Emile as the highlights. The former’s capacity to inspire compassion in someone who should provoke at least some terror is quite touching, while the latter is the epitome of a star as she takes hold of the stage in every scene. We simply can not take our eyes off of her and we understand why the characters in the show became obsessed with Josephine. As We Lie Still is moving, entertaining and a joy to behold, which in theater terms equals real magic.
As We Lie Still is a part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, which continues through July 27. For more NYMF reviews and interviews, click here.
Through July 27 at PTC Performance Space.