Compared to the raucous live performances throughout the evening, Dania couldn’t help but feel the slightest tinge of letdown when the pre-recorded 1960s hits came through the speakers as the house lights rose. She longed for a version of the songs with the same raw power as the songs in The Total Bent had possessed –– but admitted to herself that perhaps that was impossible to capture on record.
“What a gutpunch,” Dania said, glancing up to the illuminated cross at centerstage. Around the stage, musicians were just packing up their instruments, scattered around the stage. Only the two keyboard players –– Frederick Harris and Jermaine Hill –– were listed as members of the cast, but it has been difficult to divorce the remaining quartet of band members from the narrative.
“I have so many questions,” Gwen stated, leading the trio out into the lobby of the Den Theater. “I didn’t realize the script was published by DPS, I will have to read over it later. I need to dig through again for the through-lines.”
“Is it a world premiere?”
“Midwest premiere,” Gwen clarified. “The Public in New York did it last year. Haven got the rights to premiere it at least a year ago, it’s been a long time coming for them.”
“Well, I really enjoyed it,” Dania said. “I’m not sure I was 100% supposed to enjoy everything I did, but it was a fun evening.”
“I’m left with a lot of questions, but that’s certainly the purpose of the story,” Gwen said. “It’s more of a concert with themes –– there is a narrative, but you only pick up a hint of the story here and there.”
Eleanor tapped her chin. She was still trying to put her thoughts into words. She, like, Gwen, had many questions, but Eleanor could tell just from Gwen’s tone that the contentious opinion on the play was going to sit with her, rather than Gwen.
“That lead guy,” Dania stammered. “What was his name? Is he an actor or did they find some sort of rock singer who could act?”
“Gilbert Domally, he’s an actor,” Gwen said. “They’re all actors. Actors with really strong singing skills, obviously.”
“And dancing, too,” Dania added. “That was some of the most fun I’ve had at a play in a long time.”
“Was it a play?” Eleanor asked.
“Perhaps musical is the correct term,” Gwen said. “These things can be a bit liquid.”
“I’d go so far as to say rock opera,” Eleanor said. “A small rock opera.”
“Hmm…” Gwen said. “They did have a lot of sung-through scenes. But there’s still a few important moments entirely done with dialogue. It defies easy categorization.”
“Whatever it was, it was impressive,” Dania said.
“Are we splitting a Lyft?”
“Yeah, will you call it?”
As Eleanor did so, Gwen fight caught sight of her perturbed expression. It seemed unrelated to the business on her phone –– and judging by how little Eleanor had said, perhaps it was time to pry.
“Did you enjoy the show overall, Eleanor?” Gwen asked.
Eleanor bit her tongue, staring up at the ceiling of the Den. “We’re less than 100 yards from the theater,” she said defensively. The Lyft would provide the cover she needed.
“That’s a good sign,” Dania said.
“No rush, then,” Gwen assured. “We’ve got plenty of time to discuss.”
“I’ve got a question for you,” Dania said, shifting gears. “What did you think of the projection design?”
“Could have been audio cues,” Gwen began, although she quickly added, “…with a few exceptions.”
“I liked some of them,” Dania said. “The stuff at the end when they were using it to name the locations where the band was performing was useful. But I didn’t totally get the videos where it was just the lead guy naming a law that had just been passed.”
“My issue was more that, for like 90% of the play, the projections were onto pleated curtains,” Eleanor said. “So it was nearly impossible to read what they were supposed to say before they vanished.”
“I can’t disagree,” Gwen said. “The rest of the scenic work –– Arnel Sancianco turning the Bookspan Theater into a real recording studio, complete with those very 1960s soundproof walls on the sides – I though that was excellent. The projections took me out of it.”
“There was also something –– okay, did either of you catch this? The mic for Joe Roy at center. The old-time one. Maybe it was just me, but did it look sort of blue to you?”
“Yes, I understand what you mean!” Gwen said.
“What do you mean, blue?”
“At first I thought it was just the blue light reflecting off of it. There were a bunch of blue lights, and it’s reflective. But as the show went on, I was almost sure…”
“…that there was some sort of blue color on the inside of the mic casing, yes, I did notice that,” Gwen said. “It felt like that might have been intentional, a blues singer’s mic literally being tinted blue.”
“I have no clue what you’re talking about,” Eleanor said.
“I don’t know, a trick of the eye, maybe,” Dania said. “I mean, it’s so abstract that I was mostly just focusing on the songs by the end. I couldn’t trace the story at all.”
“Thank you,” Eleanor said.
“Wait, not at all?” Gwen asked. “I thought at least––”
“It’s outside,” Eleanor said, walking to the door.
The group piled into a Lyft and began the trip home. Gwen turned around in the passenger seat to talk with Dania.
“You weren’t following the plot?”
“I got the basic things,” Dania said. “The dad being mostly against the civil rights movement, and the son being for it, and as the son gets more successful he sells out and forgets about the stuff from before. Pretty reliable plot. I just couldn’t exactly follow every moment of the story.”
“Yeah, my experience –– we’re certainly far enough away now –– was that I was just sort of bored during the show,” Eleanor said.
“Bored?” Gwen asked, incredulous. “Bored? At a rock opera?”
Dania frowned. “Yeah, El, I was mostly tuning out the plot and even I wouldn’t necessarily say ‘boring’ to describe the show.”
“I know it’s all high-energy and stuff, but I was struggling with it,” Eleanor said. “I was trying really hard to follow the plot and track what was happening with the two side characters…they break the fourth wall at one point, and it might all be ghosts, or it’s all flashbacks. I would agree with Gwen that I’d like to read the script on its own, but I’m not sure it would make sense then either.”
“My reading of it was more that it’s an experience, right?” Gwen suggested. “You glean from it whatever you will. For Dania, that’s a concert, essentially.”
“A little more than a concert,” Dania said, “I did recognize that there was a plot, even if I missed some of it.”
Gwen nodded. “For me, I caught some really fascinating commentary on the commodification of faith, and the impossible balance between finding success and being seen as a sellout. The story is more than the easy ‘I have become everything I condemned by father for’ gimmick, its more complex than that.”
Eleanor shrugged. “Well, maybe those ideas are in there, but I had trouble pulling them out. I’m not going to say it’s a bad production or anything –– obviously, the all-male cast is doing a great job here.”
“The band is excellent,” Dania. “It’s really an eleven-person cast.”
“I admit that most of the issues I have are the script, or score,” Eleanor said. “One production won’t be able to fix that. Maybe it’s a stylistic thing. This kind of writing isn’t for me.”
“It’s certainly abstract, very up in the air…” Gwen began.
“It’s almost not, though,” Eleanor said. “That’s the issue. If it were just a concert, like Dania says, with some sort of narrative through-line, that’d be fine. It’s the meshing of two forms that bothers me: some songs forward the plot, others are just performances in-universe, sometimes the dialogue is the most important part of it. The rules for language in each scene feel like they keep shifting.”
“Opera often does the same thing.”
“Exactly, that’s why my category for it would be rock opera. Rock chamber opera, if that’s possible. But then you also have those book scenes inserted into it…I don’t know.”
Dania nodded. “I’d understand opera. I’d even understand concert. I mean, in order to enjoy it, I basically had to tune out some of the book scenes and focus on the music alone. But that’s me. I’d understand –– you, a writer –– why you wouldn’t do that. I’d just say that I think the music is good enough that it justifies the show, plot struggles and all.”
“Despite the parts of the play that left me wanting more…but I suppose that’s the catch, isn’t it?” Gwen said. “Everything in the play that I was confused about is simultaneously something I want to learn more about. I want to dig into the script and trace the plot threads I wasn’t paying attention to before.”
“If they do connect,” Eleanor said.
“I sense they do,” Gwen said. “It’s a smarter play than I think we give it credit for. And the production of it is obviously excellently polished and impactful.”
“Even if you only listen to the music,” Dania added.
Image Credit: Robert Cornelius in The Total Bent / photo by Austin D. Oie