BWW Review: Fogelberg Score Soars in PART OF THE PLAN at TPAC
Singer/songwriter Dan Fogelberg's music has provided the soundtrack for so many people's lives over the past 40 years that it should come as no surprise that his remarkable catalogue of music now provides the score for a new musical with its sights focused on a Broadway transfer. But does Part of the Plan have the legs for such a momentous leap of faith and, perhaps more importantly, a story that will sell tickets?
Ask any of the thousand or more people in the audience on opening night at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's James K. Polk Theatre and odds are they'll answer with an unrestrained "absolutely!" Written and produced by Kate Atkinson and Karen Harris - working in tandem with TPAC, which is co-producing an original musical for the very first time as part of its HCA/Tri-Star Health Broadway at TPAC Series to open the 2017-18 season - Part of the Plan is hugely entertaining and at times heartrendingly effective and emotionally charged. Clearly, it's a show on track for a Broadway opening night, but there's work still to be done to tighten the story and to deliver an ending that will guarantee box office gold.
Make no mistake about it, Fogelberg's music today packs an emotional wallop as powerful as ever: the American troubador's songs, each a story in its own right, effectively whisks audiences away to another world, another time and place created to elicit an emotional response, a visceral reaction. So, too, thankfully does Part of the Plan (named for one such Fogelberg hit). No mere jukebox musical, instead the writers and producers were able to select songs from Fogelberg's treasure trove of memorable tunes to tell a wholly original story, with all the necessary trappings to entice theater-goers.
Although unlike Jersey Boys or Beautiful (Broadway and Tony Award-winning blockbusters that feature the hit songs of Frankie Vali and the Four Seasons and Carole King, respectively, to illuminate the notable and newsworthy lives of those performers and the arc of their careers), Part of the Plan instead tells a fictional story set in the very real world of the post-World War II era, with Fogelberg's songs interpolated to maximum effect to dramatically underscore the events related by the show's book. That fictional conceit may bode well for Part of the Plan: Audiences are certain to appreciate its story, perhaps to identify with it, even while memories are evoked of events in their own lives sparked by the plethora of memorable songs in the show's score. Clearly, Part of the Plan will stir up memories: audiences are sure to find themselves moved by remembrance of times past which may have somehow been relegated to the furthest corners of the mind.
Atkinson and Harris' book for the new musical focuses on the dual stories of a young woman - born to privilege and class, who is forced by her stern father to give up her baby mere days after he is born - and the son she will never forget and never stop loving despite the years that separate them until a twist of fate brings them face-to-face. Set in the years just after World War II (the baby is born in 1949) and following a trajectory that takes its characters to the 1970s, after the end of the Vietnam War, Part of the Plan intelligently utilizes those turbulent years, rife with social change and controversy, to full effect to relate the uniquely personal story of that young woman, Rebecca (played with unyielding grace and authenticity by Kate Morgan Chadwick), and Sean (Broadway veteran Harley Jay in a career-defining performance), the son she gave up, to tell a story that is universal in scope, yet compelling and engaging in its remarkably rich structure.
The story is complex, to be certain, with multiple coincidences abounding - some to grand effect, in the manner of real life, which require the suspension of disbelief (like all good theater) - but there are those moments in which credulity is strained to its breaking point. For example, Rebecca's well-heeled New York parents take her to Santa Fe to have her baby and to put him up for adoption by a couple from the coal mining region of Kentucky/West Virginia (the locale is never specified). The couple, described as poor in the script, take a bus out west to pick up the child and travel back home when, during that time when working class folks tended to stay closer to home out of necessity and a lack of funds, they likely would have avoided all that rigamarole by adopting a baby closer to home. Dialogue relies far too often on stereotype-laden clichés, which can reduce any written work to easily forgettable tripe and sometimes it seems as if the show's historical perspective is represented via dramatic archetypes rather than more authentic - and far more accessible - sincerely crafted characters and situations.
Director Lynne Taylor-Corbett keeps the show moving at a good pace (as might be expected, since she is also the choreographer whose dance moves give the various time periods their due), ensuring that one's attention remains riveted to the onstage action. Only a few moments seem lacking in that sense of intensity that drives the plot forward and her transitions from scene to another are quickly realized and, therefore, very effective.
Taylor-Corbett's 18-member ensemble, which features a blend of performers from New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, and all points in-between, remaIn Focused throughout the production's two-and-a-half hour running time, each committed to doing their utmost to make Part of the Plan eminently relatable and watchable.
Each of Fogelberg's songs - played by music director Stephen Kummer and his five-member band - sound even better than they did the first time you heard them, each performed with an apparent desire to express appreciation for the songwriter's tremendous gifts, supplying the necessary theatrical firepower to make them part of the production's musical theater context. Victor Vanacore and Laurence Juber's arrangements make the most of Fogelberg's melodies and incisive and intuitive lyrics to ensure their success as a musical theater score.
"Longer," perhaps one of Fogelberg's best known and most beloved songs, here is arranged as a startling quartet in which the voices of Kate Morgan Chadwick, J.T. Hodges, Harley Jay and Jayme Lake combine to give audiences a superior musical highlight in a night filled to overflowing with them.
Chadwick's performance as Rebecca is perhaps the most surprising, as she commands the stage with her tremendous presence, delivering each emotion with an honesty that makes her renditions of "Believe in Me" and "To the Morning" utterly believable and heartfelt. The subtleties in her portrayal of Rebecca allow her character to evolve naturally from the show's beginning (a performance of "Power of Gold" set at a country club cocktail party that introduces the central characters with such spirit that the show is launched in theatrical fashion) to its emotionally-charged ending that will have you reaching for a handkerchief to dry your eyes.
Chadwick's almost lyrical performance in that final scene, matched by the emotions etched in Jay's face that somehow blends elation with mournful resolution, helps it to land square in the audience's collective heart, where no doubt the writers intended, but that scene could be all the more powerful with some skillful editing and some effective rewriting to underscore its impact.
Harley Jay's onstage turn as Sean Patrick O'Connor, the son given up at birth and raised by a hard-drinking Irishman and his wife somewhere in the hinterlands during the epoch-changing 1950s and 1960s, is nothing short of remarkable, as he invests heavily in his character to create a flesh-and-blood iteration of a fictional character who provides the show with much of its heart. Jay seems destined to perform Fogelberg's music, each song infused with the power of his amazing voice - his phrasing and control are impeccable - and he gives new meaning, adds more luster to the clutch of Dan Fogelberg songs entrusted to him by the show's writers. "The River," which opens Act Two, is awe-inspiring even after a first act that has included equally adept performances of other trademark tunes.
As Jake, the struggling young Jewish singer who is Sean's birth father, Nashville musician J.T. Hodges performs with conviction, skillfully delivering his songs with a veteran entertainer's polish. Jayme Lake's delightful performance as Josie, the love of Sean's life, transcends the limitations of the show's book, soars throughout her fully realized characterization, her voice shown off to perfection. Katy Blake, in her role of Bridget (Sean's adoptive mother), is allowed her own moment in the spotlight with her duet with Chadwick to "Believe in Me," late in Act Two.
As Sean's comrades-in-arms during the show's evocatively staged Vietnam sequences, Daniel David Stewart (charming as Hirsch), Darian Peer (who displays his versatility in a variety of roles, including Rebecca's friend Max and Sean's Army buddy Jackson) and Euriamis Losada (as Mendes) provide strong support throughout. Nashville's own Erica Aubrey (as Patricia) and Benjamin D. Hale (as Reece) are good as Rebecca's parents, capturing the evolving milieu of the times with more than a little finesse.
Jason Sherwood's scenic design provides the company with a suitable framework in which to deliver the story of Part of the Plan, while Jason Kantrowitz's evocative lighting design adds greatly to the overall effect of the story. Loren Shaw's costume design, largely responsible to denote the changing times over the course of the story, are beautifully crafted evocations of the various time periods and the Dior-inspired dresses in the first scene are swell! Kudos to John Liebert for his sound design, which manages to forego many of the problems usually associated with theatrical productions in Music City, no matter the producer or the venue.
Part of the Plan. Music and lyrics by Dan Fogelberg. Book by Kate Atkinson and Karen Harris. Directed and choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett. Musical direction by Stephen Kummer. Presented by K-Squared Entertainment in association with Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Presented at TPAC's James K. Polk Theatre, Nashville. Through September 24. For details, go to www.tpac.org.