Review - Things To Ruin: It's Only Musical Theatre But I Like It

Stephen Sondheim famously commented that his Sweeney Todd is an opera when performed in an opera house and a musical when performed in a theatre. A similar comparison might be made for composer/lyricist Joe Iconis' Things To Ruin, which in the past several years has played New York engagements in a legitimate theatre (Second Stage), two quasi-theatre/music spaces (Ars Nova and the much-missed Zipper Factory) and two music venues (Joe's Pub and its current home for two more performances, (Le) Poisson Rouge).

Though much of his fan base seems to emerge from a pool of musical theatre lovers that would likely get as much enjoyment from Brigadoon as they would from Spring Awakening, visitors unaware of Iconis' work in book musicals (ReWrite, Bloodsong of Love) might be more likely to call it a rock concert. This latest engagement is intended to promote the release of the show's new CD, a very rock music thing to do, but stick a performance in Carnegie Hall and I'm sure you'll hear the phrase "song cycle" bandied about. Put it in a cabaret and they might say it's Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris with a backbeat.

The unpegability (yes, I just made that word up) of Things To Ruin probably stems from the fact that Iconis writes theatre music which covers various rock styles more authentically than is generally heard on Broadway while writing rock lyrics that satisfy theatrical demands for well-drawn characters that require an actor's craft to be fully realized.

Many of the songs sound like selections from musicals that haven't been written yet. Take, for example, "The War Song," sung by a messed-up high school kid who wants to join the army to prove his worth. Establishing pathos through dark humor ("Don't care if my Converse get all bloody / After I slice up an Iranian with my big ass knife. / I mean, I really don't wanna kill anybody / But it's nice to think that I've got the potential to affect a person's life.") Iconis gets us to a turning point in a young man's life and then leaves us there to ponder what happens next; not a bad way to introduce the central character of a book show. "The Guide To Success" plays like the big first act number for another musical's villainous supporting player ("Never say what you really feel. / Why make a choice when it's safer just to make a deal?") and, in a lighter moment, a 60s bubble gum tune, "Nerd Love," where a boy admits to being turned on by a girl's dweebiness, knowledge of Star Trek and need for an inhaler ("Nothing's quite as rad as asthma, baby.") is a spiffy charm song for a secondary comic couple.

And then he gets tricky. Like in his opening number (which gets reprised at the end a la Sgt. Pepper), "I Was Born This Morning." Subtitled, "The Cicada Song," the lyric describes an insect's determination to experience all that life has to offer when he knows his life will be over in a day. But by the time the first of the evening's insanely catchy hooks, "I was born this morning, gonna die tonight," has been repeated for a dozen or so times the very human fear of not having accomplished all you intended in your own short lifespan smacks you in the heart even as your head is bobbing to the hard-driving rhythm. Other songs that stand out for their pure catchiness include "The Whiskey Song," a honky-tonk melody that could be a sing-a-long favorite at any piano bar in the country and "(You've) Never Heard Nothing (Like This Shit Here)," a screaming declaration of self-worth from the formerly intimidated.

The nineteen songs of Things To Ruin are performed by an engaging ensemble (Nick Blaemire, Katrina Rose Dideriksen, Carrie Manolakos, Starr Busby, Eric William Morris, Lance Rubin and Jason "Sweettooth" Williams) that can high-belt the bejesus out of money notes without surrendering the integrity of the lyric. This works to exhilarating affect in "Head Shot," where the three women furiously express their frustration as actresses who are certain their careers can get on track if they can only get a better 8x10.

Iconis himself is at the piano, leading an onstage band that includes Ian Kagey (bass), Mike Pettry (guitars) and Ben Arons (drums/percussion). John Simpkins' direction cannily straddles the line between theatre and concert, giving some numbers a full staging and allowing others to look improvised.

And every word is heard clearly and every lyric is sung with attention to specific meanings.

Score one for musical theatre.

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