Courtney Love is attraction, but songs carry ‘Choir Boy’
CAMBRIDGE — It’s not a backhanded compliment to say that “Kansas City Choir Boy” has its moments.
Living in that inter-genre wiggle room where dwell “theater pieces,” the sung-through show, about a couple’s tumultuous romance recalled through flashbacks, knowingly moves on plot points broad enough to spot from across the street. So this often-satisfying piece by composer Todd Almond finds traction not in its slim narrative or flat characters, but song by song.
Performed with the audience seated on three sides, director Kevin Newbury’s busy staging lives up to an increasingly popular theatrical buzzword — it’s truly an immersive experience. The central pairing of Almond and rocker-fashionista Courtney Love is complemented by a six-woman chorus of goth-ish “sirens” (leather and black lace predominate in Paul Carey’s costume design) who perform from all over Oberon, American Repertory Theater’s club-theater space. A string quartet is sometimes seated among the audience and sometimes joins the parade around and into the central playing area; cellist Eric Allen makes the most of some featured moments in the middle of the action.
Frenetic LED lights often dance around the upstage wall and a panel that extends above the audience’s heads. And D. M. Wood’s lighting design takes cues from the electronic beats that frequently fill the room, approximating the vibe of a dance club.
The best achievements here are in the score. The string section (which Almond augments at times on keyboard or acoustic guitar) creates a wistful setting for some of the back-and-forth between leads. These acoustic moments alternate with songs built around tasteful dance beats. But things get truly exciting when Almond fuses elements.
We already knew he has a deft hand at translating stately chamber pop into a musical-theater context — see “Melancholy Play: a Chamber Musical,” the charming revamp of Sarah Ruhl’s play that premiered at Trinity Repertory Company in June. In the most vibrant moments of “Kansas City Choir Boy,” Almond proposes a sort of chamber-electronica, not so much a fashionable update of Gunther Schuller’s Third Stream classical-jazz fusion as a lyrical and pulsing genre of its own.
When the intersecting vocals of the sirens and Sam Pinkleton’s abstract choreography are layered into this mix, it suggests a freshly relevant musical theater. Other moments are less compelling, including some airy, guitar-based balladry and duets that are light on melodic content.
Oh, there’s a story, too, but it seems deliberately pinned to well-trod motifs. A man and a woman meet. He’s clean-cut, she’s vaguely dangerous. They become lovers, get married, and separate. She leaves for the big city. A content Midwesterner, he wishes she’d come back.
Almond’s character goes unnamed; Love’s is named Athena, for the Greek goddess. Half the character development is embedded in the casting itself. Almond, who has yet to gain much mainstream attention, is a Nebraskan who can radiate earnest lovesickness. Love, of course, trails with her into the room her celebrity and a tabloid legacy that perhaps eclipses her musical one. We read into her character a sense of dissipation that fits the piece but may not be fully present in the material.
She speak-sings much of it, looking for a smoky, seductive effect but sometimes entering the territory of mumbles. Oberon’s capacity is double that of the New York room where the show made its world premiere in January; perhaps some elements haven’t been scaled up adequately. Yet Love is charismatic. She moves with a sultry swagger and her chemistry with Almond is apparent.
The show, which plays in Cambridge until Oct. 10 before moving to Los Angeles, will sell plenty of tickets based on Love’s star power. But it’s the music that pulls with the strongest gravity.
KANSAS CITY CHOIR BOY
Music and lyrics by Todd Almond. Directed by Kevin Newbury. At Oberon, Cambridge. Tickets: 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org