New York Times: Oct. 28, 2015
Chicken-fried Chekhov? Russian-style anomie served with strumming guitars and a Nashville twang?
It sounds like a recipe for folly, or maybe fodder for some higher-brow improv troupe. But “Songbird,” a musical adaptation of a certain Chekhov play (yes, the one with a flying critter in its title), proves to be one of the more successful attempts to transpose that Russian dramatist’s major plays to new climes and new times.
Powered by a terrific country score by Lauren Pritchard, with a strong assist from Michael Kimmel’s smart contemporary version of the text, the show succeeds in snugly reframing the story in the world of country music, with the actress Arkadina becoming the country music star Tammy Trip, played with her usual lush magnetism by Kate Baldwin (“Big Fish,” “Finian’s Rainbow”), who drapes her beautiful voice in a smooth Southern accent.
The caliber of the actors onstage at the 59E59 Theaters, where the show opened on Wednesday, attests to the quality of the material. Ms. Baldwin is joined by a winning group of singing performers (most with Broadway credits), many of whom play their own instruments, casually pulling a guitar from a perch on the walls of Jason Sherwood’s wood-slatted set when it’s time to take a solo spotlight. (Liquor shelves trim the set, linking the whiskey swillers of the South to the vodka-addicted originals.)
“Songbird” would probably be most enjoyable if you could expunge any memory of its inspiration from your head; it took me a while to stop ticking off the characters’ correspondences with the originals. But soon I let Chekhov fade away and immersed myself in what is — despite the cliché that Chekhov is all about mood — a pretty ripping yarn about love, betrayal and the hunger for fame and achievement.
The show is mainly set in a honky-tonk presided over by Pauline (a wonderfully warm Erin Dilly), who once used to sing with her friend Tammy on the club’s stage before Tammy hit the big time. Pauline’s daughter, Missy (Kacie Sheik), stands out from the crowd in her gloomy gothic black — yes, she’s the equivalent of Masha, but Mr. Kimmel refreshingly skips over any attempt to echo Masha’s famous plaint about being in mourning for her life.
Missy does have a Masha-like yen for Tammy’s son, Dean (Adam Cochran), a problem with whiskey and a dismissive attitude toward her father, Samuel (Andy Taylor, nicely underplaying the pathos). She inherited this from her mother, who has been carrying on, on and off, with Doc (a wry Drew McVety).
Excitement is high with the expectation that Tammy will be coming back home tonight, opening for Dean at the club, where he plans to debut one of his own compositions alongside Mia (Ephie Aardema), a dewily aspiring singer whom he loves. Arriving breathless and exuding a febrile anxiousness, Mia explains, “Daddy wouldn’t let me out of his sight.”
To which Soren (Bob Stillman), Tammy’s older alcoholic brother, replies with a snort, “Baptists.”
Mr. Kimmel, who adapted “Romeo and Juliet” into a contemporary musical called “The Last Goodbye,” infuses the proceedings with agreeably funky Southern-flavored humor. And while the characters and situations are clearly modeled on the originals, Mr. Kimmel feels free to elide or compress as needed, and his characters soon shake free of the shadows of their models and capture our attention in their own right.
Of course, compression does come with drawbacks. Making room for the 17 songs requires condensing that does thin out the texture of some characters — perhaps, most notably, the Trigorin stand-in, Beck (Eric William Morris), Tammy’s lover and the casual seducer of Mia. The occasional shortcuts also doesn’t allow for all of the emotional undercurrents to emerge as organically as they do in the original.
But I wouldn’t want to sacrifice any of Ms. Pritchard’s songs, which prove to be a natural fit for Chekhov’s drama of misfired romances and lives steeped in disappointment. They supply emotional texture that Mr. Kimmel’s adaptation cannot always squeeze in.
The score ranges from pop-flavored country tunes that would fit neatly in Carrie Underwood’s catalog to more innovative numbers, such as Dean’s moody “Wandering,” which he and Mia try to perform early on, only to have a slightly intoxicated Tammy keep interrupting. The barback Rip (Don Guillory), who loves Missy, has a cool blues number; Soren is given a jauntier tune that he uses to try to cheer up that terminally glum character.
Under the finely honed direction of JV Mercanti, all the performers are excellent. As Dean, who eventually becomes a successful songwriter in his own right, Mr. Cochran gives a moving, understated performance, and his tense rapport with Ms. Baldwin’s loving but breezily egotistic Tammy is nicely etched. And while his role is a smidge underwritten, Mr. Morris exudes an air of jaded yearning that naturally bewitches young Mia, with the same sad consequences as in the original.
“Songbird,” like many productions of “The Seagull,” founders a bit in the final act, in which Mia, having been abandoned by Beck after their affair, returns home for a reckoning with Dean. This encounter usually feels either undercooked or overwrought, and, in this case, it lacks the potency you might hope for.
But the production makes up in enjoyably earthy humor what it may lack in emotional depth. Mr. Stillman’s smilingly grouchy Soren is a particular hoot, groaning at one point that he wishes “hangovers and orgasms could switch durations.” Who wouldn’t drink to that?