Avenue Theater's Bubs should stick to music, because the plot is off-key
Bubs is a crossover production, a play accompanied by songs, a concert yoked to a narrative, and that's not a bad thing: Crossovers attract new people to an art form that everyone seems to agree is in trouble (though we've been worrying about theater for decades, and it never does actually die, or even dim significantly). Writers Cy Frost and Doug Olson came up with the creative idea of showcasing a slew of different performers, all played by one actor and each performing in a different style, from blues to bluegrass. One minute you're listening to a suave nightclub, Dean Martin-style crooner, the next to a Memphis rocker fresh out of prison; then comes an aged Mississippi bluesman or a down-on-his-luck Tom Waits type. The songs are good and energetic, and actor-singer Erik Sandvold, leaping from persona to persona with almost insane gusto and empathy, makes every character a specific individual.
But then there's that damn plot, the plot that's supposed to hold everything together. It concerns a father and his son, Will. The father wants to be a good father, despite the fact that he has a drinking problem and his own dreams of musical stardom have faded. The mother deserts both of them for a career in Hollywood, enjoys some success, then dies in an accident — at which point the father's drinking gets worse. He and Will have a huge fight, and Will leaves for Los Angeles, returning eventually for the requisite deathbed vigil. This is a story we've heard a hundred times before. The play's themes — love, success, failure, death — are painted with a broad brush. There's no irony anywhere, no subtlety, no coming at a point obliquely instead of head-on, no surprise. All those different singers? They're characters created by the father to amuse the son.
Through the first act, it's pretty clear that the various personae are the father's creation — but then the second act begins with a kids'-show host called Count Schmelma, and I couldn't figure out if this vampire was young Will trying to make his way in glitzy Los Angeles, Will conjuring up memories of his father back home, or the father himself, still up to his old tricks even though his mesmerized, one-child audience is long gone. Later, Schmelma tells the story of a basketball game, which seems to be a satire on all those inspirational sports stories about players succeeding against expectation but then gets serious; finally, he swings into a weird, electrifying song called "You're Not Getting Out of This Life Alive." It's a great number, and I guess it foretells the death of the father, but why is Schmelma morphing from vampire clown to Eastern European refugee, and why the long baseball story? In some ways, it does parallel the main plot, as does a trio of far less interesting songs in the first act, supposedly sung by a guy named Roland who had always wanted to be a musical comedy star. But the mix is more confusing than engaging. And the rock-concert trappings, the very visible mikes and the harsh amplification of Sandvold's most intimate bits of dialogue, have a distancing effect. I could see that the actor was filled with emotion, but I just couldn't feel any visceral response.
Still, the depth of talent on this stage is astonishing. Like Sandvold, the musicians are tremendous, and their resumés dazzle. I've no idea how director Warren Sherrill managed to get so many major players — including Joe Kelly, Peter Huffaker and Dean Kielian — in one place. You can sense their pleasure in playing together. And David Lafont's set is also pretty great. Trimmed of the maudlin plot line, this could be a fine evening. But as it is, it's no more than some well-performed, entertaining songs.
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