BWW Review: By Any Name, ANNIE KING is a Sweet New Musical Thriller
Cults aren't scary because of their graphic history of ending poorly. (Not just because...) The real anxiety is not born of their detachment from truth, but rather the reasonable-ish facsimile of truth that they can project.
Underscore Theatre's newest, the cultic "bluegrass musical thriller" MY NAME IS ANNIE KING, likewise doesn't derive its thrills from shouting "boo," but because it seems so goshdarn cozy. An appealing cast out in the woods singing bluegrass, that most homespun genre of music; what could possibly go wrong?
In good ways, that is.
Good for the audience, but less so for Lucas (Royen Kent), a med student escaping the ghost of his imposing father. A chance encounter with the charismatic Cash (Jeff Mills) leads to his acceptance into Cash's little...family, who live alone in the middle of the woods. There are red flags - Cash quotes from a "good book" that's almost-but-not-quite the Good Book; the group is overwhelmingly comprised of young women also escaping broken and lonely lives; Cash is the only man, and, well, sexual exclusivity is not a two-way street - but to Lucas, anything is better than what came before, especially after he falls for Rosalie (Paige Daigle), the youngest, whom Cash seems to treasure above the rest. It would be remiss of me to go further, but suffice to say, secrets and lies from long ago pull everyone to the ledge, and someone's got to take a fall.
Who's it gonna be? The actors will keep you guessing until the end. Kent is a superb Everyman, a representative of every "normal" bright, young, and secretly troubled adult who's ever been blindsided by a kind word, only to get trapped in the web of highly conditional love. Mills is avuncular...until he isn't. Daigle has no past she's fled from, and she'll do anything for answers. And Maeghan Looney as Hannah, Cash's caretaker, knows more than it's safe for her to know.
Katy Rea and Aaron Albert's score is appropriately unsettling, yet pleasing to the ear. Utilizing bluegrass for story theater is tricky, given its simplicity of form, and some might call its lyrics overly repetitive and its harmonic structure basic. Here, though, they pull off the balancing act; it's simple, not simplistic. It ain't Sondheim, compositionally, but it derives its power from all the things not being said, turning its repetition into manic insistence.
Krista Pioppi's book is credibly incredible; as in, things spiral out of control in a plausible (and retrospectively inevitable) way. It could be tauter, though, which is not the worst problem for a brand-new musical to have. In the case of a musical thriller, that oh-so-special case, they could forego more obvious attempts at levity in favor of something wryer. (There's a song called "Squirrel Stew," in case the group's backwoods bona fides were unclear.) I'm also of two minds on its two-act format. On the one hand, claustrophobic musicals like this one almost seem to demand a single uninterrupted act. On the other hand, there's enough tension at the break to draw us back in for more, punctuated as it is by a suitably creepy juxtaposition of Lucas's elation at being accepted into the fold and the violent means by which he severs his ties with the outside world. Perhaps if the hints and clues to the mystery were a little more evenly dispersed, that could tone things up.
Or maybe shaving a few characters could help, too. It's really a four-person show; MURDER BALLAD, but bluegrass. Of course, there have to be enough people to have a cult. But, however well-performed, most of the (female) ensemble doesn't have a whole lot to do other than serve Cash and...well, let's just say, given many a cult's history with beverages, their oft-sung love of "white drink" isn't for nothing. This also lends a sort-of disingenuousness to the show's pride at exhibiting a majority-female cast. Quality, not quantity. Fortunately, the roles of Rosalie and Hannah have quality in spades.
As does the production. As director, Alex Higgin-Houser, helmer of Underscore, confidently lets the material stand on its own, and Eric Luchen and Erik Barry's sets and lights are rustic and phantasmagoric. Maegan Piccochi (with assistance from Mr. Kent) directs the band with jittery verve.
No facsimile, this is a worthy new musical with dark but vital truths to share. So gather 'round the campfire while it's still hot.
MY NAME IS ANNIE KING plays through May 28th, 2017 at the Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway. Performances are on Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays at 7:30 p.m.; and Sundays at 5 p.m. There will be added performances Saturday May 20th at 3 p.m.; Thursday, May 25th at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, May 27th at 3 p.m. Tickets ($20-30) are on sale at underscoretheatre.org.
Photos by Evan Hanover