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New Directions in Theater

by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Sep 24th, 2016

Cast of Safe by Frank McGinnis

When was the last time you saw an indie musical? The answer must be never up until now. Yet there’s a new indie musical, Safe, playing at The Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck. Safe by Frank McGinnis, directed by theater veteran Lou Trapani, contains a mix of the strengths and weaknesses you might conceive that an indie musical might possess, but the good news is that the strengths greatly outnumber weaknesses. This musical aspires to take the American musical in a new direction away from pat cornball lyrics into the fuzzier world of sincerity, truth, authenticity—and it succeeds in doing just that.

The lyrics by McGinnis are a resounding strength, yet you will not walk away singing a tune you can’t forget. Don’t misunderstand me: the music by McGinnis (pictured in the teaser photo) ably orchestrated by Mathew Woolever remains suitable for the lyrics, but there’s no ambition to create a snappy Broadway chart hit in indie world. The frolicking music is predominantly string guitar with piano accompaniment. With a cast of very young actors, the singing offered surprisingly professional voice.

The plot, although thin, contains drama. Two love relationships in generations apart are explored through misunderstandings, breakups, hiatus, and reunion. This not being a classic French comedy, the muted realism of the tentative re-establishment of two relationships ambiguously concludes the play, which centers on small town life in Anywhere America. Although the play offers a trenchant critique of small town life as a restricting space that enhances jealousy, frustration, and a mentality that encourages blinding isolation that afflicts the project of self-development, the play does not offer an alternative urban romance or myth. Amid the play’s searching honesty, it retains a focus on ridiculing narrow self-justification, along with the moral to explore the process of continually opening doors. The play’s title is ironic.

An unexpected strength of the production resided in the chorus. As in a Greek chorus apt commentary, both positive and negative, is wittily supplied. Small chorus roles engaged in acting was sometimes superior to lead roles. And they could really sing. Yet in the last quarter of the play their role dwindled and then vanished. When it came time for the chorus to join in on the finale, they then appeared as if they were an afterthought inclusion. The last third of the musical might have been enhanced by some comic counter-perspectives by the chorus.

Trapani’s decision to abandon the traditional stage worked most marvelously. Backscreen images projected were evocative, freighting more resonance than the concept usually permits. Discarding costumes for the one fit eventually became awkward in situations when characters aged by decades. I think the lack of costume changes inhibited actors, leaving them with an extra burden of sincerity as a uniform they must wear.  The mask of costumes is essential to good drama.

The deus ex machina climax of finding the miraculous needle in the haystack provided awkward closure, while the finesse of uniting both main and subplot appeared to be beyond the sociology of small town America. The smaller elements of the play—the music, singing, and aspiration of self-transcendence—constituted the heart of this delightful and charming venue.

The play runs through Sunday. For information on tickets see:   http://www.centerforperformingarts.org/all-shows-sp-1131460608/item/safe