By Bob Hicks
A few nights ago, as I watched the premiere of Find Me Beside You, Jessica Wallenfels’ “rock story ballet” stage adaptation of Van Morrison‘s 1968 concept album Astral Weeks, three things crossed my mind.
The first was the tradition of the minimally staged Broadway musical — in essence, concert versions of full-blown theater pieces — that has been popularized in the Encores! series at New York City Center and emulated across the country, including productions by the Portland company Staged!
The second was Working Girl, the 1988 romantic movie comedy starring Melanie Griffith as a working-class sharpie who, as a gopher for conniving big-biz baddie Sigourney Weaver, figures out how to make a stalled television megadeal work: let a little air out of the tires and reap big profits in radio instead.
Ben Waterhouse has reviewed Find Me Beside You here for Willamette Week, and Catherine Thomas here for The Oregonian; both were in general impressed, with reservations. I tend to see a little less diamond and a little more rough, but I agree that what’s good here is promising. And I have a modest suggestion: let a little air out of the tires. Find Me Beside You tries to do too much on too many platforms, and its high ambitions make it a sprawling muddle instead of the focused gem it might be.
Wallenfels has created a loose plot for an album that has no real narrative. Her story has something to do with the Irish troubles and a boy and girl who begin as best friends in 1960 in Belfast and are buffeted by events through the next dozen years as they bounce between Belfast and Dublin. The boy has an affair with the girl’s younger sister, who becomes something of a sacrificial lamb.
The trouble is, without the synopsis in the program (the show has no dialogue other than the lyrics of the songs) it’s almost impossible to follow what’s going on. And the show’s heavy dance element, which is meant to convey the emotional and psychological states of the characters as well as providing narrative thrust, instead mostly just gets in the way of the music. Too often it feels like a distraction, invented to try to cover up the bare patches in the plot. The movement is incredibly busy and broad-gestured, overwrought in a way that might be fitting for a lot of rock ‘n’ roll but not for Morrison’s song cycle, which is constrained and relatively subtle, and which owes more to folk, jazz and blues traditions than to the Dionysian extremes of arena rock. This is Van Morrison, not Jim Morrison. Further, this is a cast of singing actors, not dancing actors, and while they’re all game, you can’t build a dancer in three weeks. The hyperactivity of the movement sucks energy away from the music and sometimes even gets in the way of the singing: at times the performers are so busy clambering up ladders or doing twirls that they’re thrown off pitch, something I’m betting wouldn’t be happening if they had their feet planted and were concentrating on the song. The problem is, this grouping of songs links emotionally and musically but not narratively, and trying to make a story from them takes away from the clarity that each possesses on its own.
So what’s wrong with treating the thing like a song cycle, which is essentially what it is? Like a pop-music version of Winterreise, Astral Weeks is an extended composition that is linked by musical ideas and emotional tone. It isn’t opera. And musically is where Find Me Beside You succeeds the most, and is most promising.
To begin, the onstage band of Sam Densmore, Eddy Dragonetti, Eric Nordin, and Sarah O’Mara is bright and nuanced and adept, switching instruments and styles with an ease and professionalism that provides all the forward thrust the songs need. Secondly, the show actually adds something to Morrison’s music that is worth adding and paying attention to: it takes the songs out of Morrison’s mouth and divides them among a strong cast of vocalists. That accomplishment alone absolutely honors the original and offers it a fresh perspective: the songs are good enough to succeed on their own, without their maker. That gives them lasting power, and is enough to make Find Me Beside You worth the effort. In essence the stage show is a highly inventive arrangement for multiple voices of a work of art that has always been thought of as a distinctively solo achievement. It doesn’t replace the original, but it amplifies it in interesting ways that suggest the interpretive elasticity of the classic popular songbook. Wallenfels may well disagree with me, but I’d suggest that anything that takes away from that sterling accomplishment should be stripped out of the show.
And that takes me back to the idea of the Encores!-style staged concert. At first blush this style of presentation lowers expectations — it lets a little air out of the tires — by downplaying dance, design, and storyline. But in doing so it also emphasizes the primacy of the music itself as the core of the Broadway musical, and it’s hardly a stand-and-deliver visual monotone. Costuming is important, body language and facial expression count a lot, and usually there’s a modest amount of blocking to suggest important interactions. Every gesture means something.
That, I think, is the direction Find Me Beside You could go. Don’t worry about the overarching story. There isn’t one, and trying to create one only muddies the waters. Concentrate on each song as a small discrete gem: think of it the way a good cabaret singer thinks of the songs she chooses to perform. Find the emotional connections, but don’t overstate them. Suggestion is of the essence. Explore the music; let it speak for itself. And whenever you can be true to Morrison but also put his music in a new light, you’re on the right track.
ILLUSTRATION: Dave Cole and Elizabeth Klinger in Jessica Wallenfels’ “Find Me Beside You,” produced by Many Hats Collaboration, Portland. Photo: Zachary Rouse.