“Songbird” at 59E59 Theaters (Closed Sunday December 6, 2015)

Written by Michael Kimmel
Music and Lyrics by Lauren Pritchard
Directed by JV Mercanti
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

A long list of adaptations including those by Tennessee Williams (“The Notebook of Trigorin”), Emily Mann (“A Seagull in the Hamptons”), and Regina Taylor (“Drowning Crow”) have payed homage to Anton Chekhov’s 1986 “The Seagull” by retelling the story of the dysfunctional Russian family in a variety of creative ways. “Songbird,” currently running at 59E59 Theaters, continues the retelling tradition with felicitous results. Stories of unhappy lives fueled by unrequited love are not confined to the Russian tundra nor are the revelations of inner selves fueled only by copious draughts of vodka. A struggling music venue in Tennessee serving beer and shots is witness to the failed hopes and discontented lives of a fading music star who is at the helm of a dysfunctional extended family.

“Songbird” is successful in two ways. Thanks to Michael Kimmel’s rich text, it is a remarkably rich retelling of Chekhov’s classic, following the characters, their conflicts, and their tortured stories in exacting parallel progression. And it is a stand-alone play which highlights the universality of individuals and families confronting and demystifying the challenges of discontented lives and the failed hopes that challenge humankind and its discontents. Chekhov’s seagull becomes a bluebird here with the same rich connections and metaphorical vectors extant in Chekhov’s masterpiece.

Under JV Mercanti’s scrupulous and precise direction, the ensemble cast rips into Michael Kimmel’s text with passion and exposes every nuance of the script with exacting honesty and authenticity. Ephie Aardema gives Mia a profound longing for love and acceptance and the persona of a truly wounded songbird. Erin Dilly’s Pauline is also looking for acceptance as is Pauline’s daughter Missy (Kacie Sheik). Pauline, unhappy with her marriage to Samuel (Andy Taylor), woos Doc (Drew McVety) with a sad woundedness and Missy pines for Rip (Don Guillory) from her core of brokenness. Honky Tonk owner Soren is played by Bob Stillman with a brooding and expectant wonder. And Tammy’s younger love interest is played with panache and puck by Eric William Morris.

Lauren Pritchard’s music and lyrics capture the mood and torment of Tammy Trip’s (played with an aggressive vulnerability by Kate Baldwin) return to the Honky Tonk that launched her career and her jealous intrusion into her son Dean’s (played with a brooding angst by Adam Cochran) attempt to embark on his own performance career. And Michael Kimmel’s text transposes the underbelly of Chekhov’s “Seagull” to a contemporary and believable setting where hopes, dreams, disappointments, and despondency collide and collude to a destructive end.

The members of the ensemble cast play all of the instruments with skill and a playfulness that belies the fact that they are the orchestra for Lauren Pritchard’s solid score.

“Songbird” continues the successful 5A Season offering a remarkable and inviting retelling of a stage classic. See it before its final performance on Sunday December 6, 2015.