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BWW Review: WE'RE GONNA DIE in New England Premiere

We're Gonna Die

Written by Young Jean Lee; Original Music by Young Jean Lee, Tim Simmonds, Mike Hanf, Nick Jenkins, and Benedict Kupstas; Directed by Shawn LaCount; Dramaturgs, Ilana M. Brownstein & Alexandra Juckno; Lighting Design, Justin Paice; Costume Design, Michelle Villada; Sound Design, Lindsey Anderson; Choreographer, Misha Shields; Stage Manager, Emily Brown; Assistant Stage Manager, Hannah Estabrook

CAST: Singer, Obehi Janice; Music Director/Keyboard, Steve Sarro; Bass, Thom Dunn; Guitar, Shahjehan Khan; Drums, Ethan Selby

Performances through April 29 by Company One Theatre, in association with American Repertory Theater, at Oberon, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or www.companyone.org

Young Jean Lee takes a very simple fact of life and turns it into her premise for a sweet and weird song cycle. We're Gonna Die, in its New England premiere, is the perfect vehicle for Company One Theatre and the engaging Obehi Janice, backed up by a four-piece band that kicks it on the stage of Oberon. Part storytelling, part musical, and always theatrical, this cabaret-style song cycle boldly goes where many of us don't really want to go and makes the subject of death less daunting than you might think. By the time the audience is invited to sing along on the jaunty title song at the end of the show, the communal spirit makes it feel like we're giving the Grim Reaper a big, fat raspberry. We're gonna die and it'll be okay!

Before that strangely happy ending, Janice takes us through a series of life lessons by telling stories about pain, loneliness, illness, loss, and love. The first anecdote relates the kind of pain that comes in childhood when learning about the vagaries of friendship, and the comfort that only a mother can provide. Everyone can empathize with the excitement of having a wonderful new boyfriend, and the dark loneliness after getting dumped. Jean Lee's song for that occasion hits the nail on the head with the lyrics, "The only words of comfort for the lonely, the very words that they will never hear...I'm coming over now, I'll be right there."

There's a considerable amount of humor in the show, my favorite bit being the singer's grandmother's cautionary tale about getting old ("everything will hurt") which had the more senior members of the audience laughing knowingly. Jean Lee's writing can turn on a dime, going from that song into a long description of her father's cancer diagnosis, illness, and eventual death. However, she gets support and indelible counsel from her old girlfriend Beth who had her own unfortunate circumstances. Beth expresses sympathy for her suffering, but gently asks why she thinks she is so special that she should go through life unscathed or be immune to tragedy.

Company One Artistic Director Shawn LaCount knew what he was doing when he put together this group. Music Director/keyboardist Steve Sarro, Thom Dunn on bass, guitar player Shahjehan Khan, and drummer Ethan Selby are a solid ensemble of musicians who take good care of Janice in her professional singing debut, and also provide harmonic backup vocals. Choreographer Misha Shields pulls them into the act for the raucous final number and the quartet synchronizes with Janice in a variety of silly poses. Their fluidity and ready-for-anything attitude reminded me of The Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night." Thanks to Justin Paice (lighting design) and Lindsey Anderson (sound design), We're Gonna Die looks and sounds like a concert, and costume designer Michelle Villada draws the eye to Janice in a yellow sweater with a sweet appliqué of a colorful sailboat.

We all know that nobody gets out of this life alive, yet we seem surprised when bad things happen to us or our loved ones along the way. Jean Lee reminds us that "horrible things happen all the time," but it doesn't sound so bad in her words and in the telling by Janice and company. It is definitely worth an hour of your time to take in C1's show at Oberon. It is surprisingly comforting to be reminded that we're all in this together.

Photo credit: Evgenia Eliseeva (Obehi Janice)



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From This Author Nancy Grossman