Monday, January 21, 2008

Heather Christian and the Arbornauts in "North"

Photo/Courtland Premo

Heather Christian and the Arbornauts could've chosen a better theatrical vehicle to widen their exposure than the crashing plane of their new show, North, but given the seemingly unlimited range of Mrs. Christian's voice, the packaging hardly matters. She's absolutely arresting, one of the few female singers I've seen who can honestly be called a siren (after her ability to freeze her upper register and vibrate it so it sounds like the wailing of a melodic police car). That shouldn't excuse the ambiguity of the wintry set, or the static snow and loopy graphics of the sundry televisions, but it does. Had the actual theater been as cold as the "plot," I'd have sat through it to hear Heather lilt through covers of The Decemberists ("The Engine Driver") and Cyndi Lauper ("All Through The Night"), not to mention her own songs, like the titular "North."

The show itself exists in the dreamy poetics of metaphor, from a silent entrance up the audience aisle (with poses struck in the snapshots of light between transitioning blackouts) all the way up to the identical ending. There is no dialogue beyond the distant recorded voice of a pilot: the story is told entirely by the music, with the assistance of a few dances that look like flight attendants hyperventilating their way -- in sync -- through the pantomimes of airline safety. Like the frosted trees that roll from the wings onto the stage, this is just trim and icing that frames a set list in much the same way that a teenager cleverly stitches together a series of disparate songs into playlist with a clever title.

North has a unifying force, however, a polarizing, truly magnetic north that points the way forward, and that's Heather Christian. The audience may not be able to guess that what appears to be a puppet show of a flaming airplane jettisoning debris onto a dying tree below is actually the supposed origin of the Arbornauts , born of "packages of love" that blossom within a tree. But they can follow the cryptic love song "Jet Thrust and Blushes," guided like its singer "So, so, so high you were, there was a highway up to you." There are moments of static distraction, and the band isn't yet as cohesive as they should be (I couldn't think of a reason they'd be singing off pitch), but that's just a little turbulence. And as the pilot says, "Sit back, relax . . . or lean forward all twisted up, the choice is really yours."

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