If the Inauguration didn’t distract you enough from our grim winter weather, go see one of the last couple of remaining performances of Far From Freud in the Blackbox storefront performance space at Village Players Theatre this weekend and take refuge in other folks’ problems. It’s not exactly upbeat escapism, but this newborn original musical is really an enjoyable diamond in the rough.
I always find fresh work pretty exciting. Written by 21-year-old Phil Riegle, a senior music major at Elmhurst College, the show deserves our attention for a variety of reasons. If you’ve never seen a production at VP’s Blackbox theater space, they’re much akin to the old “B” movies of the 1940s and ’50s in that production values (sets, costumes, lighting and such) may be low-budget and the material itself might be chancy and untried, but the dramatic results are often memorable, even thrilling. We are indeed fortunate that we can enjoy such fledgling works in a local storefront theater-we don’t have to go “off Halsted” for such theatrical experiences.
First, let me admit I’m a big fan of alliteration, as was my father (hence my name), but perhaps Far From Freud is not a title that pulls you to the box office. It sounds more like an anthology of required readings for some psych class than a modern musical. I was expecting something ponderous and morose. There’s actually no mention of Sigmund Freud, thank God. Though the show does deal with an assortment of people facing various emotional challenges, each of whom are talking to their shrink, the plot is involving, the characters are mostly believable, and Riegle’s soaring music is impressive. Though I didn’t head home humming any of the tunes, I was struck by the variety of the musical styles and the strength of many of the individual numbers.
Christopher Pazdernik directs a company of nine actors who do an exemplary job playing complicated roles. Since the audience is sitting only a few feet away from the performers, we really get a very “up close” view of these individuals. Each cast member has both a strong voice and solid stage presence.
The plot gimmick is that after we meet a number of contemporary men and women speaking to an unseen therapist, we then dissolve into scenes from their lives. As the musical moves forward, we realize many of their personal situations and relationships are interrelated. The bottom line is that each person just wants to love and to be themselves.
Initially the stories seem like a grab-bag of overwrought soap opera relationships all lumped together in one huge montage. There’s an angry high school girl (Erin Marie O’Shea) who’s been impregnated by a drug addict (Joe Zordan.) A young, closeted husband (James Gavin), haunted by a past relationship, tries to cope with coming out to his wife (Stephanie Foster.) An ambitious businesswoman (Sydney Genco), married to an unsuccessful artist working at home (Andrew Toniolo), find they are increasingly alienated from one another. A woman who had a baby alone in her teens is now struggling with breast cancer. Two brothers have grown distant and unsupportive.
A number of comic touches spring from the heavy emotional problems confronting the characters. When somewhat estranged brothers Toniolo and Gavin get together to finally “be there” for one another, they chug a lot of vodka while trying to decide on a DVD to watch-“chick flick” or “guy movie.”
When a husband (Toniolo) arrives at their counseling session first without his successful corporate wife (Genco), he comments on the possibility of “couples therapy without a couple.” When she does show up, both sing “Where do I fit in?” They sense that saving whatever they once shared is perhaps now hopeless. She refers to his lackluster painting career as his “little coloring project.”
Gavin is intense and credible as a married gay man who has long denied his sexuality. He has been unable to come to terms with himself. Gavin’s love song, “All I Need,” sung with Michael Mejia, is moving and heartfelt. Later in the show he sings “How It’s Gonna Be,” a song of affirmation.
Most of the vignettes feel fresh and real but there are a few trite or clichéd moments. The gay guy, for instance, actually says to his haughty suburban mom, “This isn’t some kind of phase or sickness you can just cure, Mother.”
Production values are meager. Lights are either on or off. A clunky old leatherette sofa doubles as a hospital bed. But what’s really important-the songs and the storyline-are impressive. Pazdernik’s direction and the performances are solid. The cast really sells this material.
Several of the songs are truly haunting, such as when terminally ill Moira (Jennifer Noble) is wishing for “one more year.” Her song, “Never Alone,” is quite touching. And after she and her niece (O’Shea) sing “Marigolds,” a plaintive duet about a long-ago summer, Noble sheds real tears.
The full ensemble finale is a powerful “rose-colored glasses” affair-even the dead characters are back onstage singing. But perhaps a show so fraught with issues and complications needs to leave us on an upbeat note. One thing I am certain about: Playwright and composer Riegle is a talent we’ll be hearing from again.
Kimberly Widmer is the accompanist. Dominic Clemente is stage manager.