Midwestern Gothic at Signature Theatre

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You never know how many secrets stay hidden beneath the surface until you start digging. Don’t dig too far down into Virginia or you’ll miss all the sordid secrets that come tangled up in the world premiere of Midwestern Gothic, a new musical with Book by Royce Vavrek, Music by Josh Schmidt, and Lyrics by Vavrek & Schmidt. Appearing now in The Ark Theatre of Signature Theatre, this freeze-frame capture of dystopian life in the American Midwest circa the late 80’s/early 90’s is a questionable venture with a welcomed, albeit sudden, dark plot twist that hooks the audience late in the game. Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Gardiner, the show dabbles with dark thematic elements that stir up controversial conversations.

Morgan Keene (seated center) as Stina and the Hired Boys (Evan Casey, Jp Sisneros, Chris Sizemore, Stephen Gregory Smith) in Midwestern GothicMargot Schulman
Morgan Keene (seated center) as Stina and the Hired Boys (Evan Casey, Jp Sisneros, Chris Sizemore, Stephen Gregory Smith) in Midwestern Gothic

While Scenic Designer Misha Kachman keeps the play space banal, with a basic and minimalist approach to décor and furnishings, the show’s placement is grounded in the thread work of Costume Designer Ivania Stack. All the gents wear some flavor of plaid, some even feature cut-off sleeves. With only three female characters in the production, Stack works miracles to give them individualized looks while keeping them within the bounds of the play’s construction. The trashy yet tasteful outfit featured on Deb showcases her personality and persona before she ever speaks, and the infamous yellow swimsuit seen on Stina creates both a unique appearance for her while simultaneously channeling the spirit of her absent and wayward mother.

With a skeletal scenic outline, shifts in location as well as degrees of plot severity fall to the realm of illumination. Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills creates invisible platforms of emotional elevation with his light work, using focused colors in both warm and cool hues to draw intensity into and out of moments. The reddish pinkish light bath featured during “’Neath the Surface” is one of these moments where Bills’ lighting design augments both action and narrative. Bills also uses more commonplace lighting effects to differentiate between locations; in the field of Crocuses versus inside Deb’s bar, and the darkened night when Deb and the Sheriff go riding in the car as well as when Red and Stina set out in the truck are all defined by the way light plays around them, filling the void created by the use of minimalist scenic elements.

Royce Vavrek and Josh Schmidt’s musical is problematic, primarily in its disproportionate balance and too thinly spread versatility when it comes to musical stylings. A variety of musical style can be a good thing, but in Schmidt’s case it feels disjointed and doesn’t make for a smoothly connected piece of theatre. The heart and soul of the show seems to thrive in three numbers— “Ol’ Deb”, which is bluegrass folk, “Bathtub Burlesque”, which is really augments the delightful absurdity that occurs throughout the piece, and in the quintessential 11 0’clock number “Mama Cries Into Her Tea”— while the rest of the musical numbers feel estranged with one another and even sometimes within themselves. Lyrically the numbers are sound, some are even quite profound, but the overall jumbled nature makes the production difficult to enjoy and difficult to follow.

Timothy J. Alex (left) as Red and Morgan Keene (right) as Stina in Midwestern GothicAmanda N. Gunther
Timothy J. Alex (left) as Red and Morgan Keene (right) as Stina in Midwestern Gothic

Vavrek’s book is no less murky than Schmidt’s music; there are high points and moments of striking clarity but on the whole it feels scattered and disorganized. There are threads of absurdism that tangle with reality in a way that makes it difficult to discern what is real, versus what is perceived reception, and what is entirely fantasized or imagined. The clenching plot twist, which arrives desperately late in the show, is blindsiding but also powerful and speaks volumes of the potential that the project could have had. Vavrek has an uneven balance when it comes to character development as well. There are stories left unexplained and unexplored and the show’s ultimate ending vibrates rashly and inconclusively.

Director Matthew Gardiner’s work is impressive considering how difficult the show is as one entity. Though there are several missed opportunities for more involved and invested choreography, what Gardiner does present is strong. Many of these moments occur with the ‘Hired Boys’ (Evan Casey, Jp Sisneros, Chris Sizemore, and Stephen Gregory Smith who harmonize divinely and provide superb backup vocals for nearly ever song in which they are featured) and could more recognizably be referred to as musical blocking rather than choreography. Gardiner’s directional choices, however, are strong. Pushing the more fully developed characters to expose these dark and seedy undertones in obvious ways helps to alleviate some of plot dysfunction and confusion.

There is also a surprising inconsistency with the Midwestern accent that comes and goes across a great many of the characters. Some have it stronger than others and some are able to carry it into their singing while others don’t. While it might be excusable to say that different folks from different parts of the Midwest have variations on their accent, this does not appear to be the case as theoretically all the characters are from the same tiny town or thereabouts once the location wanders off to Deb’s bar. While this could be easily overlooked if the book were tighter and crafted on a more even keel, it is detrimentally noticeable throughout the performance.

Timothy J. Alex (left) as Red and Bobby Smith (right) as Dwayne in Midwestern GothicMargot Schulman
Timothy J. Alex (left) as Red and Bobby Smith (right) as Dwayne in Midwestern Gothic

Bobby Smith, whose character is the least useful and yet most entertaining, takes up the role of Dwayne, the Sheriff. His attempt at a Midwestern accent is the most consistent, though not without flaw. His humorous barbs and bites are intriguing, if a bit grim, and he brings a firmly aloof presence of mind to his portrayal. Smith’s robust and rich voice is a velvety layer to “Straight and Narrow.” His scene in the car with Deb (Sherri L. Edelen) is one of the more intense moments experienced in the production by way of normality, honing in on Smith’s ability to carry seriousness in an otherwise offbeat and quirky character.

Sherri L. Edelen (left) as Deb and Timothy J. Alex (right) as Red in Midwestern Gothic Amanda N. Gunther
Sherri L. Edelen (left) as Deb and Timothy J. Alex (right) as Red in Midwestern Gothic

Edelen, whose supporting character is underdeveloped by Vavrek’s book, puts her powerhouse vocals on display during “Whiskey Courage” getting not only a blast of sound from the number but a healthy dose of sassy attitude as well. Though her singing isn’t much featured until the final number of the show, Edelen’s performance is just as impressive as if she’d been given a dozen numbers to work with. “Please Come Home”, the frightening finale duet between Deb and Stina, with the pulsing harmonies of the hired boys, showcases Edelen’s musical versatility quite clearly.

Red (Timothy J. Alex) is another character who isn’t thoroughly done justice in his creation, in particularly the underlying secrets of the storyline that drives him and Deb to where they are when the musical gets underway. Alex is a performer with a strong stage presence and equally impressive voice. “A Million Poses” puts his vocal tenacity on display while “In the Shame of My Loving You” firmly flaunts his ability to connect emotionally with these numbers. Despite the flimsy premise of introducing LuAnn (Rachel Zampelli) to further fuel the catastrophically unexpected ending of the show, Alex plays a fun, if peculiar, duet with her during “Playboy of the Midwestern World.”

Morgan Keene as Stina in Midwestern GothicMargot Schulman
Sam Ludwig (left) as Anderson and Morgan Keene (right) as Stina in Midwestern Gothic

Anderson (Sam Ludwig) is the most honestly crafted of the characters featured within the production. Ludwig’s nervous energy and animated physical responses as well as facial reactions are what keep the audience interested in his thread of the story and his plight as it progresses. His voice blends delightfully in the duet “Gonna Get Us in Trouble” but it isn’t until “Saint Sebastian” where his vocal integrity radiates through the song, carrying hints of his accent with him in addition to honestly connecting to the raw emotions that erupt from this number. Bullied, terrified, and all but tortured by the enigmatic viper that is Stina, Ludwig’s responses to her are out of frightened affection, which explores the multiple levels of disturbance happening inside his character’s psyche as the show progresses. 

Morgan Keene as Stina in Midwestern GothicMargot Schulman
Morgan Keene as Stina in Midwestern Gothic

Watch out! Stina (Morgan Keene) has just come from the bathtub! Keene’s initial pitch control is questionable but by the third number she cleans up nicely. Fully embracing the off-kilter mentality of the character, which is no easy feat as Vavrek has plotted it all over the map without clear borders, Keene puts a curious spin of perceived reality into her portrayal, which ultimately helps the character experience a full transformative arc. Nailing the 11 o’clock hour with gusto, Keene lays heavy both vocally and emotionally into “Mama Cries Into Her Tea”, which is so jarring and stunning that it leaves one breathless. Absorbing the absurdly playful nature of “Bathtub Burlesque” Keene manages to highlight the almost demonic undertones of the song in a garishly appealing fashion.

The musical on the whole needs work, but is not unpraiseworthy. The show is intriguing, albeit a bit confusing, and worth investigating to experience something new, to experience the secrets such a dark and stormy tale has the potential to contain.  

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission

Midwestern Gothic plays through April 30, 2017 in the Ark Theatre at Signature Theatre— 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. For tickets call the box office at (703) 820-9771 or purchase them online.


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