Michael John LaChiusa’s Hello Again has inspired Musical Theatre Guild’s very best production since 2009’s two-in-a-row stagings of Kiss Of The Spider Woman and Violet. Under Michele Spears’ inspired direction and starring ten of the country’s finest musical theater talents, this seductive chamber musical, based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 classic La Ronde, proved again that when MTG members and guest artists have the right material, their “concert staged readings” can the equal the very best fully staged productions in town.

Hello Again was also the company’s most “adults-only” fare since 2004’s The Wild Party. (Note the deliberate use of past tense. This MTG production was a one-night-only event, entirely fitting for a musical centering on a daisy chain of mostly one-night stands.)

Like La Ronde, Hello Again begins with a man and a woman, adds a bit of mystery, seduction, humor, and a big helping of sex, then sends one of the pair into the arms of another, who then couples with yet another, and so on and so forth until the La Ronde comes full circle with the last new character paired with the first to have disappeared from the loop. LaChiusa, who wrote book, music, and lyrics, adds a bit of non-chronological time travel to the mix (the first scene is set circa 1900, the second in the 1940s, the third in the 1960s, then back to the 1930s for scene four, until the tenth and final scene brings us up to the year 2000). The openly gay composer also adds a homotwist to the circle by having the cast made up of six men and four women. You do the math.

The daisy-chain begins with The Whore (Cynthia Ferrer) and the Soldier (Jake Wesley Stewart), the latter of whom has no cash to offer in exchange for sex. Fortunately for him, she turns out to be “the one who gives it away” in the first of many simulated sex scenes, more of them than you’re likely ever to have seen in any ninety minutes of musical theater, or at least not in an MTG production. In fact, of the ten couplings, only one does not involve copulation, and that’s only because an iceberg gets in the way.

The soldier then meets The Nurse (Lowe Taylor), and with a 1940s swing trio providing backup harmony, he sings, “I gotta scratch my itch. May be my last. I got a little war. My boat’s about to leave.” He just wants to get his nuts off. She wants more than just a one night fling. What else is new?

The Vietnam War is raging when the nurse meets The College Boy (Will Collyer), an Upper East Side rich kid with parents moneyed enough to hire in-home care for the young scion’s sprained angle. Teenage boys may have the reputation for being horny devils, but this time it’s the nurse who takes charge and the college boy learns that stockings have more than one use. (Can you say “Tie me up?”).

Cut to a 1930s movie theater where Fred Astaire is dancing on the screen and the college boy is having an illicit tryst with The Young Wife (Kim Huber), who declares herself “morally bankrupt” and proves it by giving college boy a blow job, popcorn sticking to her knees. Now, if only the boy could get it up and keep it up.

Milton Berle is on the TV (it’s the 1950s after all) as the young wife and The Husband (Gordon Goodman) prepare for a night at the opera. But first, a bit of conjugal gratification, during which the young wife fantasizes about love with a stranger in LaChuisa’s catchiest tune, “Tom.” “I can’t remember my husband’s face,” she sings. “I can’t remember my lover’s face. But I can remember a stranger’s face.”

It’s the 1910s and the husband has invited The Young Thing (Rod Keller) to his luxury liner stateroom, telling him “When I saw you board at Southampton I thought: There you were, all alone, sailing across the sea, sweltering in steerage, looking lost and hungry. Fatherless. Penniless. Innocent.” Well not innocent for long if the husband has his way. Then again, there is that pesky iceberg…

Disco and polyester reign in the 1970s as the young thing meets The Writer (Kevin Symons), who already sees in his mind’s eye the movie De Palma will be making from his screenplay. The young thing wants “somewhere safe, anywhere safe”; the writer wants nothing more than the young thing’s slim young behind, and to paraphrase Lola in Damn Yankees, what writer wants, writer gets, and sweet young thing, horny writer, wants you.

Fortunately for the women of Hello Again, the writer swings both ways, and is now a 1920s silent movie writer/director/star, appearing opposite The Actress (Melissa Fahn) and trying in vain to win a declaration of love from her. (This is Hello Again’s only scene without a song, though LaChiusa provides silent movie-style musical accompaniment.)

The actress, now living in the 1980s, is mistress to The Senator (Michael G. Hawkins) but desires more from their relationship. “I’ll be what you want, I’ll be anything for you,” she sings, and offers him a diamond brooch she had received from an admirer (to make him jealous?) but to no avail. Soon the senator is out the door and into the arms of …

The Whore, back from Scene 1, in the year 2000, and before she can tell him “Hello Again,” the circle is complete.

LaChiusa’s often discordant music has been called an acquired taste, the composer’s this-way-and-that-way melodies making Sondheim seem positively Rodgers-and-Hammersteinesque by comparison, however having seen several LaChiusa shows over the past few years, I must confess to having acquired a taste for his tunes.

LaChiusa’s book for Hello Again allows each cast member to play a number of minor roles, carefully chosen to suit the actors’ main character. The Senator appears as an inebriated man, The Actress doubles as an opera prima donna, and The Young Thing is also a pop singer. When The College Boy and The Young Wife have their movie theater tryst, they are surrounded by horny men. Scene Two’s 1940s setting features an appropriately swingy trio and quintet. In addition, Hello Again’s music score manages to fit each decade, all the while remaining quintessentially LaChiusa, whether the five-part harmony of the 1940s “We Kiss” or the 1930s tango “Story Of My Life” or the doo-wop 1950s sounds of “At The Prom” or the “do the hustle” beat of the disco-70s “Montage.”

Director Spears’ imaginative staging showed her understanding of the material, beginning with the striking opening tableau of all ten characters greeting the audience before Whore and Soldier take over. Though Hello Again isn’t a dancey show, Spears’ choreography (assisted by Joseph McKee) was dynamic and just right for each era.

The fact that each of Hello Again’s characters stars in only two of the show’s ten scenes gave the MTG cast the opportunity to hone rich, memorable performances despite the 25-hour rehearsal limit per Actors’ Equity “concert staged reading” rule, and meant that more than any MTG production in memory, their in-hand scripts seemed little more than props, the entire cast virtually off book from start to finish. Making their achievement even more impressive is the complexity of LaChuisa’s often dissonant melodies, tunes that would stump a less gifted bunch of performers than those onstage at the Alex.

The roles adapted by LaChiusa from Schnitzler’s originals thus offered MTG members and guest artists a greater-than-usual chance to strut their vocal and dramatic stuff—from Ferrer’s lusty Whore to Stewart’s sex-starved soldier to Taylor’s saucy Nurse to Collyer’s eager College Boy to Huber’s nubile Young Wife to Goodman’s kinky Husband to Keller’s sexy Young Thing to Symon’s conceited Writer to Fahn’s sultry actress to Hawkins’ skirt-chasing Senator. The entire cast was so all-around sensational that it would be hard to pick a favorite, though Fahn’s Actress allowed the MTG regular the chance to show a range and depth that roles like Daisy Mae have barely scratched the surface of.

Matthew Smedal on piano conducted a pitch-perfect four-piece orchestra (Dynell Weber on violin, Greg Huckins on reeds, and Brian Boyce on percussion), absolutely perfect for LaChuisa’s chamber piece. Carol Brolaski-Kline’s choice of costumes couldn’t have been better, especially as each character requires two different versions of the same basic outfit, to match the time period of the sequence in question. Costumes were provided by Valentino’s Costumes. Art Brickman was production stage manager and Janette Jara and Nicole Ruiz assistant stage managers.

Sadly, there will be no Hello Again for Hello Again. Happily, its one-night-only performance is sure to remain a career highlight for its cast and a 2010 theatrical highlight for those fortunate enough to have been there on Monday for the vocal, romantic, and sexual fireworks of ten amazing performers and the characters they brought to such vivid life.

–Steven Stanley
November 8, 2010

The Alex Theatre, Glendale


Comments are closed.