Thursday, July 26, 2007

PLAY: "33 to Nothing"

Photo/Jaisen Crockett

33 to Nothing's billing is a bit misleading: this isn't "a play with live music" so much as a recording session with a play. There really is a band, 33 to Nothing, and they really did just release an emo-ish rock album, and they really are in a play called 33 to Nothing (with the exception of drummer Tim Valli, replaced here by actor Ken Forman). If nothing else, it's a nice branding strategy and marketing campaign, especially since the run at the newly minted Wild Project is an open one.

As it turns out, the show is actually better than the album; the only problem is that the "dramatic scenes" that fuel the raw emotion for the eight songs of the show burn all too quickly into smoke, and choke the progression of the show. The best thing would be if the play within the gig could be performed internally so that all the audience had to sit through were the songs; seeing as that's not likely, I'll settle for director Randal Myler tuning the show a little better. If in the show, lead singer Gray (Grant James Varjas - keyboards), can keep changing his lyrics; there's no reason Myler can't fix a few notes now.

Then again, Gray's an alcoholic, struggling to keep his band together as his life apart. He's lost the man he loves--his bandmate Bri (Preston Clarke - lead guitar)--he's been evicted, and his mother has just passed away. What's left of Gray's family is the band, but as Tyler (John Good - rhythm guitar) seeks more control, and Tyler's wife Alex (Amanda Gruss - bass) runs out of ways to broker piece between them, even that seems tenuous. Barry (Forman), as the drummer, is well suited for comic relief, and given the stifling tension, he's called upon quite often for his misguided complacency.

What's really interesting about 33 to Nothing is how well the music is worked in to the story. Granted, setting the show within a recording studio allows you some freedom, but it's interesting to see the fictional history behind these songs: for instance, the way all of Gray's latest songs are melancholy ways of crying over Bri, or for blaming him. Of course, the problem is that there's little theatricality in this realistic staging, and the range of music is rather limited to that which best serves the story. Not much is up-tempo, and while the focus on lyrics is nice to see in a musical, the verses are erratic. There's nice poetry on "Happy Moral Suicide" ("He keeps his heart in the frozen food aisle/not because he has a cold heart/but because he wants it to last a little while") but only banality on their title track ("Don't be scared when I need a drink/It's just something that I go through/Nothing bigger than my thirst/nothing bigger than my love for you"). So far as staging goes, not to mention the big picture of drama, 33 to Nothing is a huge step back from Spring Awakening and Passing Strange.

33 to Nothing is, in many ways, a trivial musical playing off-off-Broadway. At the same time, it's an innovative debut for an album, and it's a concert with real meat (and some chops) on songs like the elegiac "Lost to Me" and the show-stopping "28 Bars." With more variety -- both in the staging and the song choice ("The Same Old Song" winds up standing out as anything but) -- this show might find some real soul, and not just the commercial application of one.

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