[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jul/23/family-album/]
If you like your musicals upbeat and buoyant, with a linear plot trajectory, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's world premiere production of "Family Album" may be a stretch. It's messy, feels a little rough in spots, and grapples with some big themes in a very nonlinear way. But if you can set aside your typical expectations and simply go on the ride where this production takes you, it is a ride worth taking.
OSF commissioned this work from Stew and Heidi Rodewald, whose prior musical, "Passing Strange," garnered critical acclaim. They are rock musicians with an ear for popular culture and outsider voices, and theater could use a lot more attention to voices that don't enjoy dominant culture privilege.
One thing I have learned to love about people who feel themselves to be outsiders (having regular occasions to walk in those shoes myself), they often don't feel constrained to follow the unwritten rules for whatever setting or genre they have landed in. Perhaps those rules don't fit the stories they want to tell -- or perhaps they don't know they are violating any rules. I make a practice of listening to the stories of people who feel themselves to be outsiders and sometimes it can be disorienting and challenging. What are they trying to say? Is there a point here somewhere? Often there is a period of confusion or even irritation before I realize -- surprisingly often -- that this person has something to teach me, and the circuitous journey may well have been as important as the destination.
I thought of such conversations while experiencing "Family Album." It takes a while to wind-up. The cast members are all stretching beyond their comfort zones, either because they are musicians with little theater experience or actors with some uneasiness about performing in this rock-musical setting. No one is exactly in his or her wheelhouse. The story isn't overly complex -- a band led by aging rockers is about to play a major gig as the opening act to a popular young group in Madison Square Garden and stops in to crash at the posh Brooklyn home of two former bandmates who have found more conventional financial success, which rekindles old loves and old rivalries and big questions about the trade-offs of different kinds of success. But though the music is crisp and the cast is talented, the plot meanders and I occasionally wondered what edges we were walking and why.
But the payoffs did come. I found myself sinking into deeper questions about what a struggle it is to do anything really authentic. The characters' loyalties shift and all values are open to question: What kind of success can one really aim for as an artist? A large audience? An internet following? An idea that is truly original? A good brand? What is the point of having a family or a long-term relationship? Intimacy? The chance to replicate yourself? To shape another human being? Where is the room for artistic expression inside a family? Is that important? What is a family? What is an audience? Is an audience good for art? Or is your art better if it is underappreciated and misunderstood?
As the characters wrestle with these and other questions, a kind of energy builds around them. The songs begin to go deeper. By the time these lines are sung, I was all the way in: "She taught me a thing/about the balls you bring/and how it's probably worth it every time/ to hit the fucking stage/and free your poem from its cage/and you don't give a damn if it rhymes./ I'm sayin' if you're gonna take it/ to a place where we can make it/ we've gotta leave illusions behind. / And it might get us in trouble, or burst somebody's bubble / but it's probably worth it every time.'
Those lines are earned. What has played out on the stage is the struggle itself. The journey of this play is the struggle for authentic expression, in art and in relationships. It is hard work, and it is messy. It often doesn't feel successful. Except that the struggle itself is, in some sense, the point of the struggle.
It feels oddly right to embody that struggle in the context of a rock musical that doesn't quite fit into our usual ideas of theatrical genre, with a multiracial cast of people trying, in many cases, to work in a form that is a bit of a stretch. With each performance, I suspect it feels like kinks are being worked out, but it’s hard to say if they are even kinks or just part of the wondrous act of creation that is the very dilemma at issue.
Daniel T. Parker's performance as the Brooklyn couple's precocious kid especially blew me away, and the music, particularly the piercing lyrics by Stew, are funny and often surprisingly deep. I am waiting for a cast album, particularly so I can have another laugh at the kid's song about a Ken doll who likes men and resents always being stuck with Barbie ("I'd prefer G.I. Joe/ but any able-bodied man-doll would surely do/ just someone to love / cuz I am not set up to screw."
There is a lot to admire here and -- as with all conversations at the margins and playing with the whole idea of margins -- the struggle is, indeed, worth it.
“Family Album” plays through Aug. 31 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. For a full schedule, visit osfashland.org.