BWW Reviews: FRIDA THE MUSICAL Is Experimental And Artistic At The McCallum Theatre -- But Is It Really A Musical?
The McCallum Theatre deserves tremendous praise for presenting such a diverse slate of theatrical offerings to the desert community season after season - and this season is no exception. FRIDA THE MUSICAL was one of those pleasant and delightful "surprises" that is such a joy to see in a modern theatrical landscape that is often more predictable than not. The FRIDA creative team --- Marcos Lifshitz, Octavio Salazar-Villava and Klaudia Casillas - have delivered a highly artistic and visually appealing production built on the foundation of a rather lush and lovely score. Where it missed the mark, for me, was in the actual structure of the piece and not utilizing the "music" in the musical to its emotional potential. In fact, I might even debate whether it was truly a "musical" at all.
Though billed as FRIDA THE MUSICAL, the production is more definitively, for me, a "play with music" since the songs and dances, although lovely in their own right, did little to move the story forward and, in most cases, felt like a "break in the action" rather than a part of the whole. It felt to me more like a piece of avant garde or experimental theatre than a musical - where the creators wove together divergent forms of performance art into a "theme" rather than, as in a musical, seamlessly tying together song and dance and spoken word to fully develop the characters and tell the story. All of the elements were quite wonderful, independently -- yet they did not come together in a way that sparked an emotional connection between Frida and audience. It's not that it didn't follow a "formula" -- I am a big fan of breaking the rules --- but I think if the songs and choreography were more effectively utitlzed to tell the story it might have had a significantly greater impact.
Overall the production was unemotional and "distant" - this, in my opinion, for a couple of key reasons.
For one, the central character Frida plays the show almost entirely from her wheelchair, observing her life rather than "living it". She seems, herself, distant and somewhat blasé about the events of her life unfolding before us - and thus, so do we. It is not until she "joins the action" very late in Act Two that we are drawn into her emotional world --- and it is far too late.
For another, the entire show is performed to track. If it were just the orchestra it would likely not affect the show because audiences have grown (sadly) accustomed to pre-recorded orchestras. However, because the ensemble is made up of dancers and not singers, all of the rich chorus vocals are also pre-recorded and so the passion and energy and resonance that can only be achieved by live singing is missing. Thus, all of the ensemble numbers fall flat and fail to move the audience, as they should. That is truly a shame because the score is quite rich and the vocal arrangements stellar. Stellar, but passionless.
Jacqueline Fernandez (Frida) is exceptional - delightfully comic, wonderfully expressive and a gifted singer. The end of Act Two is comprised of a fifteen minute or more monologue by Frida, and Fernandez displays a depth of character and raw emotion that is riveting. It is this passion and emotion that was missing throughout the first three quarters of the play. And, since this is supposed to be a musical - it is crying out for her to SING!! The authors missed the mark by not musicalizing the most important moments of the show and leaving all the work to dialogue. (Also, because the play is performed completely in Spanish, and since MUSIC, not spoke word, is the Universal language - it would give the play a much broader appeal to a wider audience if the emotional peaks were SUNG!)
Darling Lucas (Young Frida) is a strong actress - and her dramatic scenes were some of the finest moments in the play -- but she is not a very strong vocalist and was featured in several key musical numbers. She was pitchy throughout the show, and sadly her vocals were a bit cloying and took away from the score, rather than supporting it. Al Castillo (Diego) turned in a solid, if unremarkable, performance.
Klaudia Casillas choreography was generally quite beautiful, well executed and, at times, deliciously surprising. However, more often than not the production numbers seemed out of place and brought the story to a stand-still rather than moving it forward. It was as if the "musical" took an intermission to present a modern dance troupe's interpretation of the story. The use of tableaus as a gimmick in number after number grew tiresome. The "miscarriage" sequence at the end of Act One was brilliantly effective and the best use of dance to interpret what words could not - it was as emotional as it was theatrical and one of the highlights of the evening. On the converse, the opening of Act Two (the Revolution) was predictable and looked liked it had been lifted directly from a road company of either Les Miserables or Evita, just set to different music and performed by a modern Dance Company.