By Luke Byrne; Directed by Michael Bello
Part of the New York Musical Festival
Off Off Broadway, Musical
Runs through 8.5.18
Theatre Row's Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
by Dan Rubins on 8.4.18
L-R: Jason Moody, Jessica Turk, and Jenny Rose Baker in Between the Sea and Sky. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.
BOTTOM LINE: An enchanting, oceanic musical mystery from an engaging new musical theatre voice.
Read up on the New York Musical Festival (NYMF) and it won’t take long to find boasts about the festival’s biggest success stories, those shows that have gone onto greater glory on Broadway like Next to Normal and [title of show]. I’m not sure if Between the Sea and Sky will ever join those elite alumni. But why focus on the future when this lovely, eerie new musical from Australian writer-composer Luke Byrne can be seen right now in an accomplished production, snuggled in comfortably at the 199-seat Acorn Theatre in Theatre Row?
Sam (Jenny Rose Baker), an adventurous would-be actor about to enter high school, and Emily (Jessica Turk), her nine-year-old sister, go to stay with their grandmother (Barbara McCulloh) on the seaside after their parents split up. Grandma’s no fun—“Sam is a boy’s name and girls should dress like girls,” she instructs her granddaughter almost immediately upon their reuniting. And Emily needs Sam’s attention in the wake of the divorce. But although Sam prefers to escape into her volume of Shakespeare’s complete works, she can’t help being drawn into investigating the truth behind a local legend involving a decades-old, ocean-related tragedy, a mystery that swiftly threatens little Emily’s safety.
Baker is endearingly adolescent as Sam, and she sings powerfully, especially in an early number in which she longs, all at once, to be, to create, and to perform as Shakespeare’s characters, all while she gushes with a complex and youthful sense of infinite possibility. The rich-voiced Sarah Jane Shanks stands out among the talented cast as a ghostly figure wandering the seaside, and there’s charming work from Thaddeus Kolwicz as Vincent, a local teenage artist who helps Sam puzzle out the mystery. McCulloh nimbly alternates between playing the grandmother and a helpful town historian.
Byrne’s score reminds me most vividly, in its folk-tinged lushness and haunting, swirling accompaniments, of Lucy Simon’s adaptation of The Secret Garden, but there are occasional evocations of the mellower moments of Spring Awakening in Byrne’s juxtaposition of warm violin and relaxed rock band. In fact, it’s Byrne’s orchestrations for the five-piece orchestra, along with his vocal arranging in the stirring choral moments, that are his greatest achievements; he has a nifty knack for making his own melodies sound more original and gripping than they might with barer instrumental support. Byrne’s imagistic lyrics, sparing in use of rhyme, serve the piece well.
Byrne has lucked out in finding Michael Bello, a director who molds the show into polished, gorgeous life. Bello makes clever, versatile use of a four-person ensemble of “seagulls” (Anna L. Baker, Jordan Bell, Caroline Lellouche, and Jason Moody) who scamper and flutter around the stage, transforming into snooty elderly beachgoers, kooky library patrons, and hammy thespians as the script requires. (In one delightful directorial touch that sets a whimsical tone, the seagulls panic during the festival’s pre-show recorded announcement, trying to figure out where the voice could be coming from.)
I had been in the Acorn Theatre hours earlier, taking in a different NYMF production, and I was startled by how evocatively Joshua Warner’s simple set seemed to transform the stage into a beach, with overturned armchairs doubling as driftwood. The rest of the design team further buoys Bello’s fluid staging with stirring Jessica Creager's lighting design, including a convincing underwater scene, sound designer Josh Liebert's effective storms and seagulls and echoes, and Heather Carey's clever costumes, which subtly thread together the 90s vibe and mythic sea story atmosphere.
The commanding professionalism of all involved goes a long way to cover up some of the show’s inconsistencies. Too much time is spent on explaining and re-explaining the convoluted ghost tale, which features the predictable deadly storm, visit to the mental institution, and potential haunting, but also a less conventional band of hippies. The investment in this side of the story comes at the expense of time that could be spent developing Sam well beyond the teenage sleuth prototype that she eventually falls into; supporting roles like Grandma and Vincent could do with some more fleshing out as well. And while the quartet of actors playing the seagulls throw themselves gamely into each scenario, they carry the burden of selling the show’s weakest and most expendable material: an overlong amateur theatricals rehearsal scene that tries too hard for laughs and “The Australian Crawl,” a dance number that serves as the misguided Act 2 opener.
But even with these occasional meanderings off-course, this ship sails more smoothly and securely than many a NYMF offering. Besides streamlining some of the plot-heavy, dialogue-dense stretches, shaving off twenty minutes of material and excising the intermission might not be a bad idea. A leaner show that clings more closely to its churning melodic core and to the fates of its winning young protagonists could go a long way towards anchoring this promising new show that’s already well worth catching in this cozy harbor.
(Between the Sea and Sky played at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, through August 5, 2018. Running time is 2 hours, with one intermission. Performances were 7/31 at 8, 8/2 at 9, 8/3 at 5, 8/4 at 1, and 8/5 at 10:30 am. Tickets were $29.50. For more info visit nymf.org.)
Between the Sea and Sky is by Luke Byrne. Directed by Michael Bello. Choreography is by Jim Cooney. Music Direction is by Elizabeth Doran. Set Design is by Joshua Warner. Lighting Design is by Jessica Creager. Sound Design is by Josh Liebert. Costume Design is by Heather Carey. Orchestrations are by Luke Byrne. Stage Manager is Paula R. Clarkson.
The cast is Jenny Rose Baker, Thaddeus Kolwicz, Barbara McCulloh, Sarah Jane Shanks, Jessica Turk, Anna L. Baker, Jordan Bell, Caroline Lellouche, and Jason Moody.