How does a family move on from the loss of a wife and mother? It’s a difficult question in the first place, then you throw in a haunted house, and the whole situation gets jumbled.
So begins Vivian, a new musical by Atlanta theatre professionals Chase Peacock and Jessica de Maria. Making its world premiere at the intimate Lyric Studio Stage (one of a zillion theatres on the Marietta Square), the audience is tightly packed in, inches from the action- the pre-show curtain speech requests no one leave their seat until the end of the show for their own safety.
It’s worth noting that this particular crowd- largely composed of friends of the writers and performers- seemed unfazed by the spooky elements. Unexpected ghost appearances, sudden shocking moments, almost all were greeted with laughter from this congenial, if relaxed group. You’ve never seen an audience more ready to fall in love with a new work.
Vivian tells the story of therapist Cliff Bennett (a rich Travis Smith) who, having recently lost his wife, moves with his two daughters to a disheveled fixer-upper home. Reading patients and reaching his own daughters prove two very different things, with the latter being the chief struggle Dr. Bennett- who repeatedly reminds us of his prestigious title- faces. As they settle in, his youngest child, Vivian (a young and brilliant Mabel Tyler), seems haunted by an invisible force in the house. Teenaged Chrissy (a poignant Brittany Ellis), meanwhile, is so over both her dad’s lame attempts at connecting with her, and the boy-next-door’s, James (a golden-voiced Austin Taylor), attempts to woo her. As a first mounting, the 90-minute one-act musical leaves much to be desired while showing great promise.
It feels like two shows in one: the first being a sad but hopeful musical about a family trying to rebuild their life, a man struggling to love his daughters well, and a teenager falling in love. The second, a straight play without songs, is a ghost story about a girl sporadically possessed by something unknown. Each entity is intriguing and worth pursuit, though neither is fully fleshed-out. As a unit, Vivian plays as simultaneous productions of both the musical and the straight play performed in tandem unbeknownst to one another. This ultimately creates an unfinished product in search of a focal point as it flails in different directions.
Chase and Jessica’s modern ballads sit comfortably in the Broadway-pop genre, with an easy rock bent. Especially in “The Tides,” a masterful trio sung by Dr. Bennett and his daughters, C&J’s songs feature utterly delightful folk-like harmonies. Much of the music and lyrics prove memorable in the best ways, with another particular winner, the sweetly relatable “Let Me Guess.” Still, the show feels under-sung, with little variety in the tunes, which often trail off without closure, and have a weak connection to the book.
Its billing as a ghost story hypes the supernatural elements more than the story delivers, with some explanations turning out to be disappointingly benign. Even at the close of the show, it’s unclear whether the ghost(s) are malicious or just creepy by virtue of being ghosts.
A few key moments are lost in Vivian’s underdeveloped book. Without giving anything away, the audience reaches some conclusions while the characters are still in the dark. Then suddenly, we’re all on the same page, not quite sure how or when the Bennetts and co. got there. Among its many fragmented pursuits, the most disjointing is the show’s abrupt, songless end. Even the actors seemed apologetic as they shrugged, smirked as if to say, “Yes, that’s really it,” and bowed.
Director Julie Skrzypek uses every inch of the limiting venue, with a simple if predictable set. As a small-scale world premiere, this production does exactly what it needs to: it shows the vast potential in this musical and its writers.
(Dis)Agree with what you read? Let’s have a discussion in the comments or on Twitter- @BwayGinger!
Oh and let’s just all listen to “The Tides” and “Let Me Guess” on repeat, ok? And then check out more at Chase and Jessica’s website, here.