Directed by Charlie Johnson
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Portraying himself and explicating his understanding of the creative process in “Head Voice,” Ethan Andersen has continued to re-work his new musical (originally workshopped in New Orleans in 2010) and showcase it in this year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival. The result is mostly quite pleasant and often impressive. Mr. Andersen writes sophisticated music and his score here is quite pleasing. His lyrics are serviceable. The cast members (the “thoughts” in his head) are uniformly committed to his work and their collective craft is a joy to experience. Charlie Johnson’s attentive direction outstrips his more pedantic choreography and keeps the performance moving swiftly.
Entering the stage (left) through a door that separates his creative space from the “mess outside,” Ethan begins work on his musical about – what else – his life and follows the creative approach to writing a musical beginning with feelings, constructing chords, finding words, and writing. Ethan is interrupted by the voices in his head that remind him of his unresolved issues, his recurrent self-doubt, and his apparent penchant for procrastination. With the snap of a finger, the voices appear on stage as Susan (Nicole Dalto), Izzy (Katie Emerson), and Ian (Matthew Summers. These three fine actors, singers, and dancers visualize Ethan’s thoughts for the audience (and for Ethan) and they portray Ethan’s addicted mother, his girlfriend, his own self, and a variety of other characters that inhabit Ethan’s thoughts, daydreams, and memories. Sometimes these intrusive voices are helpful; at other times, they confuse Ethan and attempt to inhibit his progress.
Three songs stand out among the sixteen and are representative of Mr. Andersen’s skills as a musician and lyricist: “Moving On,” “The Distance Song,” and “What you Need.” These – along with the remaining songs – chronicle Ethan’s childhood, life at school, his difficulties understanding how his addicted mother was able to show her love for him, and his experience at unrequited love.
There are some bumps in the musical’s road. There is far too much mention of being or not being gay and some unsettling references to his experience at a Jewish Summer Camp – even though he was Episcopalian (Styrofoam Hasidic hat and payos and a song-and-dance in Hebrew). When Ethan tells his mother he has something to tell her, she replies. “You’re gay.” When his girlfriend finds things going well in their relationship, she blurts out, “He’s gay.” If one is straight, so be it. There is no reason to establish that status by denying being gay. The musical would be better served to leave out these messy bits. To help the composer understand the concern, would a gay child, when telling his mother he has something to say to her expect the response, “You’re straight!”
Ethan’s head voices allow him to finish his musical, deal with the unresolved issues from his past, and move on. The “mess out there” is less messy when the artist (or anyone) comes to terms with his or her past and successfully moves on.