Sparks fly as memory lapses clash with unresolved family conflicts in The Memory Show, a new musical that had its debut last night at Barrington Stage 2. It is the second full-scale work to emerge from Bill Finn’s Musical Theatre Lab (MTL) this summer, as the Pittsfield company continues to showcase the work of young and emerging composers and writers for America’s musical theatres. With an earlier title of Memory is the Mother of all Wisdom, this work – now fully staged – was presented last year as a simpler staged reading. It featured the same Catherine Cox as the mother and Leslie Kritzer as the Daughter, and I remember being quite moved by it, though a bit mystified by the musical style.
Of course the earlier staged reading was just a pit stop for a musical vehicle undergoing early road tests, just as this current production, albeit fully staged, is a more elaborate trial run of material still in development. Both Sara Cooper who wrote the book and lyrics and Zach Redler the music are young, highly creative, but still tweaking their material. There is a lot of evolving talent here, nurtured both by the guiding hand of William Finn who is the MTL’s Artistic Producer and Joe Calarco who brought form to the surprisingly busy tale that takes place on stage.
This MTL show is unusual in that it is more of a singspiel than a musical. Though the music begins and people sing, sort of, many of the lyrics are really narrative, with four words for every one musical note, or at least that is how it felt to me. There aren’t many lyrical passages, and too many long passages of what might be described as recitative replete with intermittent musical way stations and exclamation points. Some of the time this was effective, as in the opening songs, “Who’s the President of the United States,” and “Memory Like an Elephant.” Use of this device was overdone, more variety is needed, a two character musical needs a much more dramatic variety of song styles. The most lyrical of the songs was “Lullabye” which closed the show. The patter songs such as “You and Me, Toilet” were fun and upbeat, but the majority of the songs were downers, because they amplified the constant complaining and carping of the two household combatants.
Of course writing a musical about Alzheimer’s might suggest songs that are not optimistic, and much of the humor was of the whiney kind.
As for the dramatic arc, much of the time on stage was spent trying to get the audience to side with each of the characters. The daughter paraded her decision to move back home to help her mom cope with her increasingly unreliable memory, while the mother slowly had her mind disintegrate before us. As the mother, Catherine Cox was absolutely brilliant, and her mastery of the complicated lyrics impressed. Leslie Kritzer as the daughter was equally comfortable with her role.
Mother hurled endless accusations of plots and recriminations while the daughter was not fully prepared to suffer them with understanding. Her favorite one was that her daughter never got married because she was a lesbian. The subtext of unsolved conflict undermined any feeling of love that might have been there. More than once the daughter reminded her mother (and us) of how much she was sacrificing to help her, which was futile since the effects of advancing Alzheimer’s had mom in a state of denial and impaired reasoning.
The simple set by Brian Prather, consisting of frames and pictures with a few pieces of furniture worked well. The musical direction of Vadim Feichtner was restrained and elegant. Joel Shier’s lighting was well done. The Direction by Joe Calarco was excellent, keeping the two person story moving, though the far too frequent moves from left stage to right were annoying since the odd sight lines of the Stage 2 theatre have heads directly in front of each person, and jogging from left to right is a lot of work that broke the spell of the narrative far too often.
In taking on Alzheimer’s, or any medical condition as a full length work is a tough task. Other writers have devoted a portion of the script to an explanation of the disease, helping illuminate them for the audience.
After all, people avoid thinking and dealing with one of the great scourges of our age, and the possibility, in theory at least, that it might be brought about by our diet and reliance on odd substances in highly processed foods, or in the increasingly polluted air we breath. There are also genetic components, and treatises on how best for family members to deal with the life-stealing illness. There was little of that in the musical, a choice that might be reconsidered as the play goes forward.
Instead we get an hour of familial squabbling and coping with mom’s deteriorating mind. It is all very self indulgent, as are so many new works these days. That the tendency of new voices in theatre to portray life as nothing more than bickering, spats and snarky comments rests at the feet of their mentors who seem to counsel them to write about what they know best. Instead they should be encouraged to rise above this shallow conceit and seek out the universal truths in our common experiences. Audiences go to the theatre to be entertained, and even uplifted, not to participate in the theatrical equivalent of a failed twelve-step meeting.
The first rule of theatre is to leave them laughing, or at least whistling a melody. In The Memory Show we have nobody to cheer, no tunes to whistle, though its final scene that is partially redemptive, though perhaps too little, too late..
As the daughter sings: ”I can’t give you your memories, so I’ll give you what I can: I’ll give you a home,” the two embrace for the first time in the show, and our hearts melt.
It is something that should have happened earlier. The “long goodbye” of Azheimer’s starts with memory lapses and ends with a blank stare. That loving hugs and embraces were not exchanged earlier is a shame. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s they would still mean something to the mother. As those who have been there note, hugging somebody who is no longer there has to be the most painful experience in the world. You might as well embrace a sack of potatoes.
It is entirely possible that each person who sees The Memory Show will experience it differently. And high marks have to be given for trying to relate such a complicated disease in music and words. In the end, The Memory Show may not yet be perfect, but it reminds us of how precious life is, and may even give us a better understanding of how to cope with the scourge of Alzheimer’s.
Barrington Stage Company presents The Memory Show, Book and Lyrics by Sara Cooper, Music by Zach Redler, Directed by Joe Calarco, Scenic Designer – Brian Prather, Costume Designer – Kristinga Sneshkoff, Lighting Designer – Joel Shier, Sound Designer – Adair Mallory. Cast: Mother – Catherine Cox, Daughter – Leslie Kritzer. One hour fifteen minutes with no intermission. Presented at Barrington Stage 2 on Linden Street, Pittsfield, August 18-29, 2010. barringtonstageco.org