Inspired by the solo storytelling in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, PREMIERES’ Artistic Director Paulette Haupt was curious to see how the one person show would transform if music were added to the words. And into existence came Inner Voices, which is now in its 5th year and offering a trio of distinctly different musical monologues, Just One “Q”, The Pen and The Booty Call, featuring three tour de force performers and some superb writers and musicians.
The challenge to a composer and lyricist/librettist to write a compelling music theater piece with parameters that only allow for one performer to tell the story is met in this round of Inner Voices, which shows off a combination of great musical craftsmanship and wonderful originality. Just One “Q”, with words by Ellen Fitzhugh and music by Ted Shen, opened the evening, unfolding like a Eudora Welty short story and introducing us to Benny, an orderly in the Broadbend Nursing Home played with ease and charisma by Broadway veteran T. Oliver Reid. Benny is here to “unlock hearts” and he sweetly spins out the tale of two bitter women -- Berthe, the spurned wife, and Julynne, the other woman -- and the man they both love. Over a rancorous game of Scrabble, each reminds the other that it is they who will be buried next to their man. Mr. Shen gives the score a slow easy jazz-inflected pulse and Ms. Fitzhugh writes well defined characters. A born storyteller, Mr. Reid has an immediate rapport with the audience, his Benny narrating each detail with relish. Switching in and out from Benny to Julynne to Berthe, Mr. Reid succeeds in embodying three delicious characters, including a shattering aria sung by Berthe about her abusive husband and a sadiron (a heavy flat iron with a handle heated on a fire or open stove). This aria is gorgeously underscored with a throbbing ostinato played by bassist Mary Ann McSweeney. Musical director/orchestrator/pianist Andrew Resnick and saxophonist/clarinetist Henry Hassell provide a strong musical foundation for the storytelling. Brad Rouse’s subtle direction allowed Mr. Reid to tell the story beautifully.
Shifting gears totally, The Pen, superbly directed by Margot Bordelon with a stunning, heartbreaking performance by Nancy Anderson, takes us into the fragile inner life of a woman suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Long time collaborators, composer Julianne Wick Davis and lyricist/book writer Dan Collins have seamlessly created a particular morning gone awry for Laura, a 30-something woman living by herself in Milwaukee. What makes the piece so poignant is that Ms. Davis and Mr. Collins have in 30 minutes managed to mix both pathos and humor, despair and hope into Laura’s inner musical monologue with nary a false moment. Combining soaring soprano vocals and cheery sung patter, Ms. Anderson lives the struggles of Laura “getting out the door” in the morning, acknowledging “some days are bad/some days are good/some are in between." However, when an unexpected discovery interrupts her routine of checking things yet again, Laura’s volcano underneath erupts; we witness her breakdown, her realization of how lonely she is, the sadness around the death of her father plus her defiance that today, since she can’t get to work, she won’t be playing the role of “coffee bitch” in her job as an executive assistant in a human resources department. On a pristine white set, Ms. Bordelon has orchestrated moments of prolonged stillness that contrast with super hyperactivity, adding to Ms. Anderson’s already excellent physical life; time freezes in these OCD moments as the brain whirls through every possibility. With anguish and love, Ms. Anderson reminisces about driving with her beloved father and counting the church steeples. So closely aligned with the storytelling that they seem to represent Laura’s unconscious are musical director/pianist Alexander Rovang and guitarist Tom Monkell. Whether it’s an anxious pulsating bass hand or a sweeping melody, Mr. Rovang plays with an acute sensitivity to the abruptly shifting score. Hopefully this complex and sophisticated chamber musical will get the wide visibility it deserves.
The Inner Voices evening ends with The Booty Call, a delightfully unique peek into a young man’s desire to make good on a booty call and his discovery of what is really going on deep down underneath. Written and performed by the amazingly multi-talented performer and musician Michael Thurber and nicely directed by Saheem Ali, who also contributed additional material, this piece demonstrates that there is no longer a set form for musical theater; it can go anywhere. Surrounded by all manner of electronics including a piano synthesizer, a drum pad and a looping device as well as an electric guitar and a standup bass, Mr. Thurber as Gabe begins a fascinating monologue with an improvisatory feel of his dilemma with girls. We watch and listen with rapt attention as he works out his problem through story and music, grabbing instruments, creating multi-level loops he can then use as accompaniment and being equally at home with rock/pop, jazz and rap styles. And he is a virtuoso on that bass! One repeating phrase, "I don’t know what to feel about it/I don’t know what to do about it," seems to be Gabe’s inner mantra rising to the surface. Mr. Thurber parading around in t-shirt and boxer shorts is absolutely knock-your-socks-off charming, and the piece is filled with comic surprises and tender revelations.
How fortunate New York audiences are to have another chance to experience the excellence, breadth and depth that musical theater can deliver with Inner Voices. Don’t miss this intimate evening of musical storytelling!