By Jesse LaVercombe; Directed by Adam Lazarus
Produced by Jana Fredricks and Ned Moore
Part of the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival
Off Off Broadway, Solo Show
Runs through 8.25.16
VENUE #7: Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place
by Anchuli Felicia King on 8.15.16
Jesse LaVercombe in Love Me Forever Billy H. Tender. Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri.
BOTTOM LINE: Fresh from the Toronto Fringe, this polished solo show about a fictional teen icon examines pop fanaticism and the trappings of fame, and asks when the zeitgeist will finally eat itself.
In the cavernous underground space at Under St. Marks, a young man stands, his breath heaving. In one hand, he holds a glittering silver mask. In the other, an ukulele. His brow furrows. Slowly, deliberately, he dons the mask. His body contorts. He crows.
Thus begins Love Me Forever Billy H. Tender, a one-man show mercifully free of hokey voices and self-indulgence. Writer-performer Jesse LaVercombe embodies three characters: Billy H. Tender, a fictional pre-teen superstar à la Justin Bieber; his endearingly overbearing younger brother Hal; and his mother Stella, an actress-cum-academic specializing in Post-Audience Theatre Semiotics (if this sounds a little heady, rest assured: it’s all very tongue-in-cheek). Love Me Forever is largely narrated by Hal as he attempts to reconstruct the events of January 31, 2021, the night of Billy’s Canadian comeback concert.
Love Me Forever alternates between these three realities: Billy at the concert, Stella during a hesitant sexual encounter, and Hal speaking directly to us. True to genre, Billy (now decidedly post-teen) has decided to quit the world of pop superstardom and move to Bushwick to develop his new sound, an off-kilter indie folk somewhere between the twee charm of Kimya Dawson and the black comedy of Tom Lehrer. Meanwhile, Hal and Stella struggle to form connections in the hurried world of the near-future.
Interspersed throughout are Billy’s songs, both from his former pop life and his latest folk departure. LaVercombe is by no means a virtuosic singer or dancer, so certain numbers might raise eyebrows, particularly when sung a capella. But what he lacks in musical technique, he more than compensates for with boyish charm, impeccable timing and aching vulnerability.
Moreover, his writing is taut, funny, and shrewd. Love Me Forever trades on pop culture riffs and self-conscious millennial humor—extended chains of Bro puns, an imagined threesome between Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj—but quickly detours into sensual and disturbing terrain. The futuristic setting allows LaVercombe to probe Billy’s central ideas: the frightening acceleration of digital communications, the toxicity of celebrity worship, and the warped connections the latter creates.
LaVercombe’s creation has clearly benefited from polished direction and dramaturgy; this is not an amateurish incarnation of his conceit. The lighting and set design are perfect Fringe fare, a minimalist backdrop of three screens with colored cycles denoting LaVercombe’s character shifts. The sound design is one of Billy’s strongest elements—Adrian Shepherd has not only produced an album’s worth of original pop music, but also a whole universe of perfectly timed digitized blips, swipes, and pulses. It's stunning work.
Ultimately, Love Me Forever’s rocketing pace also proves its own worst enemy; minimal action and narrative progression make this solo show feel stretched even at an hour, and each character’s journey culminates in an overly tidy and somewhat foregone conclusion. Yet this does not detract from a show that is otherwise probing, sincere, and highly entertaining.
(Love Me Forever Billy H. Tender plays at VENUE #7: Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place, through August 25, 2016. The running time is 1 hour 15 minutes. Performances are Fri 8/12 at 6:30; Mon 8/15 at 3; Sat 8/20 at 5; Sun 8/21 at 7; and Thu 8/25 at 9:15. There is no late seating at FringeNYC. Tickets are $18 and are available at fringenyc.org.)
Love Me Forever Billy H. Tender is written and performed by Jesse LaVercombe with music by Jesse LaVercombe and Adrian Shepherd. Directed by Adam Lazarus. Dramaturgy by Guillermo Verdecchia. Produced by Jana Fredricks and Ned Moore. Choreography is by Neeky Dalir. Production Design is by Shannon Lea Doyle and Kelly Anderson. Sound Design is by Adrian Shepherd. Stage Manager is Laura Malseed.