When I write a review, I invite you to take my word for it. Some readers trust my judgments and insights; others (although I can't imagine why) might prefer an opinion from another reviewer. And some people prefer to see a production and form their own opinions. That kind of response is at the heart of Know Theatre's season opener, See What I Wanna See, Michael John LaChiusa's year-old musical about perceptions of truth and reality. (This is only the second staging of the show, which premiered exactly a year ago at the New York Public Theatre.)
While LaChiusa is not a broadly recognized name, he represents the leading edge of contemporary musical theater, having composed more than 20 musicals. If you care to see a show that uses music intelligently and creatively to tell fascinating, emotional - and intentionally inconclusive - stories this one's for you. The two-hour show presents three interwoven stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (whose early 20th-century short stories inspired Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon, which is referenced by LaChiusa).
Each of the two acts begins with a retelling of a plot by lovers in medieval Japan to kill each other; it's the ultimate distillation of "he says/she says." The balance of the first act is presented as testimony in response to police interrogations into the puzzling rape of a cabaret singer and her husband's murder in Central Park in 1951.
As each character's perspective is presented - the victims, the perpetrator and a casual witness - the story and the motives become more complex and less clear.
The second act offers the tale of a practical joke perpetrated by a priest whose faith has been shaken by 9/11. He predicts an imminent miracle, intending to prove that God doesn't exist when it fails to happen. Instead, an array of people - an unhinged CPA, a failed actress, a TV reporter and the priest's hardboiled aunt - have reasons for hoping it will happen. The results are fascinating.
These tales of illusion, belief, trust and faith are set to a jazzy score by LaChiusa which is performed by the excellent cast of five, backed up by an onstage orchestra of eight, with Alan Patrick Kenny as music director. The music is full of unexpected and quickly changing rhythms, plus Latin and Asian tonalities, enhanced by the work of drummer O. yemi and percussionists Fletcher Kaufman and Nick Sebastian. While the show has spoken dialogue, it's minimal; the stories and the characters' inner thoughts are most clearly expressed through song.
Liz Holt and Cincinnati Entertainment Award nominee Charlie Clark play the murderous lovers with strong singing voices (this production perfectly balances orchestra and voices with able sound engineering by Michael Mauntel) and evocative physicality. They also portray the slinky chanteuse (Holt's crimson dress is memorable - she's also Know's costume designer) and her boorish, rich-guy husband, and they return in the second act more humorously as the distracted actress and the hysterical CPA.
Molly Binder, who earned a 2006 CEA best actress recognition, shows off a strong singing voice as a medium in the first act and as hardboiled Aunt Monica in Act II. Derek Snow is Act I's menacing rapist, then the cynical newscaster in the second act. Finally, newcomer Robert Williams is a hesitant witness in the rape-murder story, and especially good enacting the shaken priest. Williams is a great singer, and his presence onstage in the coming season for Know (he, Holt and Snow are resident actors) will be worth watching.
This tightly rehearsed production, staged by Producing Artistic Director Jason Bruffy might be Know's strongest show to date making full use of their new facility at 1120 Jackson Street in Over-the-Rhine. Everything is tight and together - singers, musicians, movement, lighting and sound. Whether you trust my judgment or form your own opinion, this is indeed a show you should "wanna see." Grade: A+
SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE, presented by Know Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Nov. 4.