Running over three hours in length, this unfocused work contains many infectiously crafted pop songs but is unable to deploy them in service of a workable core narrative. The result is an intermittently entertaining experience memorable mainly for the songs and not story. The central debate around whether it is better to be a real artist and not make much money or to sell out and become financially successful – as if those are the only two possibilities – feels artificial and way past its shelf life. The show is redeemed by the presence of a radiant Miriam A. Laube.
ASHLAND – The thing with musical shows about rock stars is that (surprise) they kind of depend on rock stars. There are no real rock stars in FAMILY ALBUM, the new musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald now receiving a bright and colorful world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, though its two creators wield justifiable rock star cred as a result of their stunning first success, PASSING STRANGE (watch it here if you missed it on Broadway). But this time around they’re not actually in the show. And part of the challenge for the audience as we witness this tale of middle age artistic regret and indecision is regarding several of the figures on stage as real rock stars – when they aren’t.
Not that any of the musicians here are lacking. As the stand in for Stew, Luqman Brown is a solid and captivating bandleader Heimvey. Casey Scott is a fiercely scowling Claudia (a stand in for Rodewald), the base player and hard-hearted current (or former?) romantic partner of Heimvey. Christian Gibbs is Gibbs, a thin second guitar player with frizzy hair and a 70’s Marlboro man moustache (which appears to be real). Vinnie Sperrazza holds down the drum kit as Charles Andy. And the incredibly dynamic Lawrence Stallings, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Daniel Breaker, who played the central youth character from PASSING STRANGE and keeps hilariously proclaiming “I can’t believe my life!”, is tambourine player Paul. All the players are fine. But at the end of the day they’re not rock stars. And no one is ever going to replace the presence of the real Stew on stage. This is an absence we will feel, particularly during some of the weaker moments between songs.
The story before us concerns a hard working road band that’s long since arrived at middle age, minus the commercial success they all hoped for. They’re still going through the motions, playing shows at bars in Hoboken, and living out of the van, when all of a sudden along comes a somewhat incongruous chance to be the opening act for the mega teenage band of the moment, The Vomit Puppies, at Madison Square Garden. We’re asked to believe that playing this show at a monster venue would actually mean anything for the fortunes of our fearless rockers – which seems unlikely.
But with this big possible moment a few days out, our band points the van for Brooklyn and comes to crash at the upscale Park Slope pad of Cleo (the ever wonderful Miriam A. Laube), who is a former member of the band and former romantic partner of Heimvey. Cleo got out of the supposed dead end life of being a real artist and married the rich art dealing Norman (Alex Emanuel). They also have a kid (no real name), who is portrayed by the adult actor Daniel T. Parker. Depending on your tolerance for wildly over the top exaggeration and the genius child syndrome – you will either love Parker’s performance or be driven close to insanity by it. With our marginal rock heroes installed in the glam digs of two artists who have supposedly sold out (and god forbid, procreated), the stage is set for all sorts of friction between past and present, dreams and ideals.
As the narrative arc comes off the rails (particularly in the second act), the enjoyment to be had here is really from the songs – whether they make any sense in reference to the larger story or not. There are some gorgeous, sparkling numbers. And as pop songs must, they will mercilessly infest your brain. Some that still ring are Mistress Melody, Sexy Brooklyn Mami, Black Men Ski, and especially the super-charged, hook-laden and beautiful Dysfunctional Family Song. Gorgeous.
Quite a large tonnage of hay is required to stuff the numerous straw men into which our characters repeatedly thrust their under-sharpened jousts. “You either stay pure and mean – or you sell out your art to the man!” “Park Slope is an evil yuppie lair!” “Cash in before you’re old!” “All suffering is caused by desire!” “Yeah!”
There are many cliches in the air, but you also want to stop the music and ask: “Wait – who among us actually believes any of this?” The problem that no amount of heaven sent song writing will fix is that the story offers little of consequence. There’s a general lack of seriousness to everything. Nothing much matters so – sure, go ahead and sing a song about how a Ken doll thinks he’s gay.
At one point, Heimvey takes a deadpan crack at a band whose name the world DOES know. “And you know, as REM says, ‘Everybody hurts sometime’,” he wails forlornly, mocking the hyper sensitivity of it all. It’s funny but would be a lot funnier if Michael Stipe weren’t a household name and musical genius – and if the reference didn’t remind at least one audience member that some of us are hurting NOW, and that we could be spending the afternoon watching an REM tribute band instead.
While the absence of (musical) rock stars has been noted, what saves the show is the presence of one very real theatre rock star. And that’s the entrancing Miriam A. Laube. A lot of the show becomes about watching Cleo and trying to figure out where she’s at. Laube has a gaze that could drown out a Marshall stack or hold a packed MSG (Madison Square Garden) rapt, and when she’s staring right at you in the small Thomas Theatre, the effect is electric. She delivers a starry performance given the material she has to work with, essentially transforming thin air into drama by sheer force of personality. And, as those star OSF-ers do, she’s on double duty at the moment, also starring in INTO THE WOODS simultaneously. Very impressive.
A final major stage presence to note – Lawrence Stallings. This guy, who is a background character here, is so so good. He really needs to be given more runway to come out front and center and really show what he has, because there’s clearly a huge amount of talent. And when that breakout moment happens, he is going to knock our socks all the way to Madison Square Garden.
Or even Brooklyn.
ABOUT HOW YOU CAN’T BE RICH & GOOD
I JUST CAST A SPELL
SEXY BROOKLYN MAMI
20 MILLION UNITS SOLD
MY LIFE YOUR HOBBY
DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY SONG
BLACK MEN SKI
SOMETHING LIKE RELIEF
MISTRESS MELODY REPRISE
“MILLION DOLLAR FEELING
UNFINISHED PAUL SONG ABOUT THE MEDIA’S FADING INTEREST IN CLEO
LOVE IS A CULT/SOMETIMES I WISH I HAD IT LIKE MY DAD