Saturday, September 9, 2017

Fizzling Out: Burn All Night at Club Oberon

As I walked out of Burn All Night, a new musical running at the American Repertory Theater’s Club Oberon, I found myself feeling oddly upbeat about the fact that I’d just seen a thoroughly average piece of immersive mainstream theatre. As I’ve written before with regards to the ART’s production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, this increasingly popular style of staging plays in such a way as to draw the audience into the dramatic action offers at least one potential answer to the question of how theatre can distinguish itself as it competes with a myriad of entertainment options for audiences’ attention. Contrary to the title, this latest offering won’t set the world on fire, but there are elements of its music and staging that partially counteract its glaring weaknesses as a play.

Burn All Night ultimately tries to make a statement about the impending global cataclysm that, thanks to our poisonous politics and abuse of the environment, seems at times almost inevitable. However, the real disaster here is Andy Mientus’s book, which follows the romantic entanglements and personal conflicts of four young people. The main character, Bobby (Lincoln Clauss), is a stereotype, the wide-eyed naif who ditches the stifling atmosphere of Real America for the boundless possibilities of New York City. The backward, provincial hellhole from which he escapes? Pittsburgh. I’m no Steelers fan, but I’m still not clear on what’s so awful about this metropolis of western Pennsylvania, and Mientus doesn’t help matters by giving Bobby a series of phone conversations with his widowed mother that mostly make you feel bad for the poor woman, who’s stuck worrying about her absent son while the world ends.

Apropos of that last point, the other problem with the play is that its view of what’s at stake in the narrative is profoundly out of whack. If my description of Bobby sounds similar to virtually every play, TV show, or movie that you’ve seen about a young, starry-eyed idealist trying to make it in Gotham, the rest of the first act continues along pretty much the same path. No sooner does Bobby arrive in New York than he has a chance encounter with his childhood friend Holly (Krystina Alabado), who moved away from Pittsburgh years ago and now lives in New York with her boyfriend Zak (Ken Clark), a frustrated indie songwriter who had one sort-of hit a while ago but now struggles to elicit interest in any of his new work. He also meets Will (Perry Sherman), a privileged kid who seems to bond quickly with Bobby because of their shared experience of losing a father. There’s a suggestion, at least to Bobby, of sexual attraction there, but we soon learn that Will is actually interested in Holly, whom he used to date when they were in high school together. Eager to please, Bobby manages to get Zak out of the way so that Will and Holly can sleep together, a secret that will, of course, emerge eventually.

Also, somewhere in there the world ends. That’s about the level of importance that Mientus accords the literally earth-shattering event to which the play builds. We only get vague hints throughout the first act that something’s off – paranoiacs and worriers like Zak and Bobby’s mom occasionally bring it up, but it’s not until just before intermission that we get confirmation that they’re onto something, as New York is plunged into a paroxysm of earthquakes and blackouts. You’d think that raising the stakes so drastically would kick the play into a higher dramatic gear, but instead we’re meant to be absorbed in the interpersonal drama that results when the gang flees to Will’s beach house and he and Holly accidentally reveal their secret. I’m as fed up as anyone with the flourishing genre of “what’s wrong with millennials?” articles in the media, but after being asked to remain emotionally invested in the soap-opera aspects of these characters’ lives while their world collapses, I began feeling some distinctly crotchety, get-off-my-lawn feelings towards these youngsters.

Given that their characters often fall into stereotype, it’s hard for most of the cast to acquit themselves especially well, although Ken Clark manages to give an appealing performance as the cynical Zak. Lincoln Clauss doesn’t add any complexity to the rather pedestrian character of Bobby – it’s not clear what, exactly, makes him so worthy of our attention. Krystina Alabado has the same problem, and it doesn’t help that, at least on the night that I saw her, she didn’t always seem able to transition seamlessly from book scenes into song in a way that made sense for her character. Perry Sherman at least manages to radiate confidence and sex appeal in equal measure; it’s clear why Holly would be attracted to Will. The ensemble members – collectively identified as The Kids – are perhaps the strongest element of the cast. They’ve got an easy rapport that complements the infectious energy that they bring to the musical numbers.

If I’ve dwelled at length on the failings of Burn All Night’s story, it’s only to establish how effective the music and staging are at covering up its considerable weaknesses. Director Jenny Koons uses Oberon effectively, placing the band at the back of a thrust stage that juts out into the club, and which serves as the focal point of much of the show. However, the action takes place all over the space, with actors appearing on overhead walkways or moving through the crowd to perform on small mobile boxes. She uses those boxes to isolate particular characters and give us a more intimate look at them, which provides a welcome contrast with the exuberance of some of the more upbeat musical numbers. That use of the whole space also serves Sam Pinkleton’s choreography well.

Burn All Night also has the distinction of being one of the few contemporary musicals that left me wanting more of the songs, as opposed to the book. That’s partly due to the latter’s poor quality, but it’s also because, as Mientus explains in his program note, those songs have been written (by Van Hughes, Nicholas LaGrasta and Brett Moses) with an eye towards approximating the pop-culture cachet of “Golden Age” musicals, when “you would hear ‘Hey There’ in The Pajama Game onstage and then go home and hear it on the radio.” On that point he’s much more successful, and his collaboration with members of the synth-pop band Teen Commandments results in songs with characteristics similar to those of the numbers from classic musicals that he’s adopted as a model. Each forms a discrete unit within the action of the play, and in some cases Mientus employs them well as a way of filling in character details, such as the backstory about Holly and Will’s relationship. Moreover, they’re eminently catchy, and reminiscent of popular bands like Chvrches.

At its best, Burn All Night’s immersive staging, dynamic choreography, and appealing songs help to establish a club atmosphere that, placed in the service of a much better show, might approach the ecstatic experience of Nietzsche’s Dionysian ideal, or of Antonin Artaud’s concept of a theatre of image and feeling (at least Mientus seems to share Artaud’s fascination with cataclysm). It’s the sort of experience we might have at a truly transcendent rock concert, something which is impossible for any form of entertainment that doesn’t rely on live performance to achieve. If Burn All Night’s style becomes more common in the theatre, at least the odds will get better that someone will hit upon the way to deliver that experience. 

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscenti page and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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