Mormons, Mothers and Monsters, book and lyrics by Sam Salmond, music by Will Aronson. Directed and choreographed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Sometimes someone you love makes mistakes..."
New musicals need work. It is very rare that they don’t. The first new musical to emerge this season from Barrington Stage Company’s Musical Theatre Lab, run by playwright/composer William Finn, "Mormons, Mothers and Monsters," definitely needs more work. What’s there is good, but to be really, really good, viable and good, producing good, the authors need to carefully scrutinize what they’ve already written, then tighten the 93 minutes, cut a few things, add a few thoughts and cap this one-act show at about 80 minutes. Then they need a second act.
There are some laughs here. There are a few heart-skipping moments. There’s even a plot. What’s missing is what good writers of fiction do with those moments of memoir that sneak into their work: refine, reuse, replace and rewrite. The main character of this show is referred to in the program as simply "Me" and me means me as we find out when "Me" gets his third father and changes his name to Samuel Liam Salmand and discovers that he is Gay. Hard to miss that autobiographical reference, isn’t it?
Here’s where non-fiction theater criticism reverts to memoir, to confessional (and why not when the principal character does the very same thing in this show): in my early twenties I had a lover who was a Mormon. I’d never met a man who had more potential or carried more guilt. He disappeared after I knew him for a year and I later heard that he had been pulled back into the religious world of Utah by his predatory mother. Somehow I pray that this show (and it's creator's life) won’t take that same route.
In the role of predatory Mom on the Stage Two platform right now we have Jill Abramovitz who takes the role of mother about as far as it can go without being a revival of "Gypsy." The character marries and marries and when her attempts to create a true family fail her she blames her teen-age son. Abramovitz is sometimes shrill, sometimes over the top and sometimes just about as right in the role as I imagine my friend’s mother must have been. Her final scene is touching yet it holds us at arm’s length and is ultimately unsatisfying. Not the fault of the actress, but the writing. She does the best she can with the material she is given and she has a lot of singing to do; she has a lot of scene work to handle as well. Abramovitz has an appealing personality, a Carol Burnett crossed with Alix Korey sort of style. She is an able support to the two men playing the roles of the guys that surround her.
As the Monster Adam Monley gets to be not just the monster under the bed, a pet peeve for so many people, but all of the men who marry "Me’s" mom. He ultimately plays five different people and he plays them superbly. As the first (ex) husband he is brash and strong and unfeeling toward his infant son who doesn’t measure up to expectation. As the second husband he is meek and mild-mannered and closeted gay. As the third he has a violent streak that emerges from the loving-care facade he hides behind. As the fourth he is obviously disturbed and easily perturbed. His actual monster is a miracle of language, body language and double intent. Monley gets all of them just right.
Taylor Trensch is the Mormon, "Me" as a child growing up. We follow him from pre-kindergarten to college student and we see the mistakes he sees and takes on as his own personal failures. Trensch does a lovely job playing piety but doesn’t handle the role of sinner with the same grace. As an actor he handles fear and disgust, self-loathing and confusion with more style and reality than he portrays happiness. That latter emotion seems more difficult for him. There’s a fair amount of all of this going on, and quickly, so it almost doesn’t matter and later he remarks that he never knew happiness after all. That could be true, but if so then the writing must bear that out; right now it doesn’t for the young boy certainly seems happy and says so.
Finally, on stage without a momentary break is Stanley Bahorek as "Me" or Sam. This is the more adult version of the Trensch young man. He has been with us from the outset and the concept here is that this together, sensible, personally in charge of his own well-being young man has managed to pull himself out of the mire of a life that is liberally conservative and miserably false. Bahorek is a fine actor and a good singer and he makes the most of his moments here.
He, like the others, manipulates his way through a remarkably inventive single set, designed by Brian Prather. Paloma Young has managed some interesting moments with her costumes and Grant Yeager does well with his lighting design. Ryan Peavey needs a few more performances in order to balance the show’s sound.
Vadim Feichtner is once again musical directing and playing the piano. He does very well even though he sometimes overpowers his singers (a problem for Peavey to solve).
Adrienne Campbell-Holt uses the small space and cluttered stage very well and her use of lighting and motion often presents an impossible picture of reminiscence. Her choreography is just rudimentary and not worthy of comment, but the fight choreography by Ryan Winkles of Shakespeare & Company is just fine.
Let’s see this show in another year, when the Gay themes and characters, when the marriage issue and the after-life issues are more thoroughly integrated, when the second act is written and we have a viable ending instead of the unsatisfying one we’re left with in this incarnation. Let’s see how the guilt-ridden, but happily released from personal Hell "Sam" fares. He is the anonymous "Me" in the first act that exists now. To become Sam would be a wonderful alternative, a fascinating turn for the story to take. I really want this show to go somewhere, and I mean that in the nicest way. There is more to this story and it needs to be told.
Taylor Trensch and Jil Abramovitz; photo: Kevin Sprague
Trensch and Adam Monley
Stanley Bahorek; photo: Kevin Sprague
Mormons, Mothers and Monsters plays at Barrington Stage Company’s Stage Two, located at 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA through July 31. For information and tickets, call the box office at 413-236-8888.