BWW Reviews: FUTURITY: Musical Powered by a Steam Brain
Futurity: A Musical by The Lisps
Music by César Alvarez with The Lisps, Lyrics by César Alvarez, Book by Molly Rice and César Alvarez; Director, Sarah Benson; Choreographer, Annie-B Parson; Production Design, Emily Orling; Set/Costume Design, David Israel Reynoso; Lighting Design, Austin R. Smith; Sound Design, Matt Tierney; Music Supervisor, César Alvarez; Music Director, Debra Barsha; Mechanical Percussion Designer, Eric Farber; Associate Director, Meghan Finn; Assistant Choreographer, Chris Giarmo; Stage Manager, Katie Ailinger
CAST: César Alvarez, Sammy Tunis, Edwin Lee Gibson, Anne Gottlieb, Aaron Schroeder, Chelsey Donn, Eric Farber, Ben Simon, Lorenzo Wolff, Carl James, Michael Kane, Milia Ayache, Matthew Christian, Liza Dickinson, Teri Gamble, Rose Hogan, Lindsey Liberatore; THE LISPS: César Alvarez, Sammy Tunis, Eric Farber, Lorenzo Wolff
Performances through April 15 at Oberon, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Futurity: A Musical by The Lisps began as a concept album about an imaginative Civil War soldier who dreams of building a machine that creates peace and evolved into a staged musical that combines history, science fiction, technology, and imagination. Upon entering Oberon for the world premiere of Futurity, leave your presumptions about musical theater at the door. Born of the art world and the indie rock scene, the show is part performance art, part rock concert, and totally defies conventional labels.
Founding member of The Lisps César Alvarez wrote the music (with The Lisps) and lyrics and co-wrote the book with Molly Rice. The fictional soldier Julian Munro, played by Alvarez carrying a guitar in lieu of a rifle, is seemingly in the wrong line of work. A pacifist at heart, he spends his time writing in his diary, diagramming his ideas for an Artificial Intelligence machine. Realizing that he does not have the resources to engineer such a device, he writes for guidance from Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the British poet Lord Byron and a mathematical genius in her own right. Once she becomes excited by Julian’s concept of the “Steam Brain,” they join forces to design and build the machine that will change the world by ending human strife.
Meanwhile, the war continues. Julian and the other untested young men in his company perform their drills and find ways to nervously pass the time while waiting to engage with the enemy. The General (a fatherly Edwin Lee Gibson) pontificates on the nobility of war as he ogles a shipment of repeating rifles, the latest technological advance in warfare. On her home front, Ada (Sammy Tunis) is challenged by her mother (Anne Gottlieb) when Lady Byron discovers the equations and formulas she’s working on for the steam brain instead of carrying out more conformist research. Thousands of miles apart from each other, Julian and Ada face their naysayers and struggle to stay true to the pursuit of their innovative dream.
Perhaps owing to the fact that the music came first, the musical numbers in Futurity are much stronger and more fully formed than the book. Things drag when conversations go on for more than a short span, but the pace and interest pick up as soon as another song kicks in. Alvarez employs a variety of musical styles and cadences, including folk and country, waltz, reggae, and spiritual. Songs like “No More War” and “Steam Brain” are percussive with a driving beat. “The Meaning or The Medium” and “Thinking” are dense with an abundance of lyrics, but they move the story forward. “How Much” is an angry song about the costs of war.
Lisps drummer Eric Farber designed and plays the Steam Brain and it is a sight (and sound) to behold. Assembled from diverse found objects such as a tractor seat, a film reel, chains, cymbal stands, kitchen tools, and actual percussion instruments, the contraption – and the wildly energetic drummer - is the focal point of the stage. It resembles a time machine concocted by a mad scientist (or Rube Goldberg) and it remains unclear to me how it is supposed to create peace, but it certainly creates a commotion.
Alvarez and Tunis are sort of a Captain and Tennille odd couple pairing – he is an accomplished musician and composer, with the appearance of an artist who marches to a different beat; she appears grounded with a more traditional stage presence – yet they combine to produce an oddly hypnotic effect. Chelsey Donn is earnest as Julian’s supportive comrade-in-arms Vincent, and Aaron Schroeder is forceful as The Sergeant. Vocals by Schroeder, Carl James, and Milia Ayache are worthy of mention in a company of strong singers. Gottlieb is convincing as the mother worrying about what the scientific world will think of her daughter. Rounding out the ensemble as soldiers and scientists are Michael Kane, Matthew Christian, Liza Dickinson, Teri Gamble, Rose Hogan, and Lindsey Liberatore.
Director Sarah Benson takes full advantage of the Oberon space, setting scenes on the balconies and a peripheral area on the side under the overhang, as well as parading the soldiers on a path through the tables on the floor. Annie-B Parson’s choreography effectively evokes military drills and battle, and both Austin R. Smith’s lighting design and Matt Tierney’s sound design augment the action. Ada and Lady Byron are costumed in detailed period gowns and the soldiers wear a variety of ragtag uniforms designed by David Israel Reynoso (who also designed the set).
Futurity makes an effort to touch the audience through several senses and succeeds best via sight and sound. There are many interesting visual images in the production. For example, a clothesline plays an important role in the correspondence between Julian and Ada, and a strobe effect is put to good use for the battle scene. The concept album deserves to be heard, but I’m not convinced by the book that it warrants staging as a musical. Like the imaginary steam brain, it looks like a good idea on paper, but the blueprint loses something in the transition from page to stage.
Photo credit: Sam Hough (Sammy Tunis, César Alvarez, and ensemble)