BWW Review: SEASONS THE MUSICAL Makes Triumphant Return to Orlando at Dr. Phillips Center
Late Spring. Early Summer. An Autumn Afternoon. Am I describing the time periods of 2014's Orlando Fringe darling SEASONS or the seminal works of film director Yasujirō Ozu? Ironically, I had watched Ozu's Late Spring a few days before heading out to Dr. Phillips Center to attend the opening performance of SEASONS. As a result, Ozu's post-war film about parenthood and reluctant marriage was on my mind for much of the show, drawing parallels I had not expected, but certainly welcomed.
As I drove home from the theatre, all I could think about was the static stage, very much like Ozu's static camera, and how we draw our conclusions not from the events at play, but the moments building up to them. SEASONS embraces these moments, the little asides to ourselves within the grand scheme of Life Itself, as it reminds us that our lives are changed not so much by the spectacle of what happens, but in the anticipation before and fallout after it occurs.
Two stories unfold here. We begin with Helen (Megan Valle), a pre-med major whose chance reunion with former high school classmate Peter (Peter Heid) results in an unexpected pregnancy and a derailment of all her plans. Peter, knowing he's just as much in over his head, promises to love Helen and the child, even if he knows it's not the love either wanted. The pregnancy is difficult, if only because it upends both lives from the separate paths they had envisioned.
Playing as B-side to this are Mrs. Jones (Rebecca Fisher) and her daughter Hope (Gabrielle Hockensmith), jubilant over her new engagement but gradually overshadowed by the mother's unexpected medical diagnosis. Working on borrowed time, mother and daughter try to keep the upcoming marriage at the forefront as both proceed with an uncertainty for what the future holds.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of SEASONS is not that these two disparate stories share a stage, but that they focus more on the ordinary moments of the four characters, rather than the extraordinary circumstances that bind them together. Drama can be found in the simplest of stage direction, whether it be the crumpling of a half-written letter or the cup of coffee laid ever-so-gently upon the desk. Even the way a character lies down in bed influences how we read the scene. The meticulous nature of their every move shows that we should always look beyond the song-and-dance and celebrate the hidden art of stage direction.
That's not to say the music and lyrics are not doing their job. If anything, the score of SEASONS helps punctuate the drama without feeling intrusive to these characters' lives. A four-piece orchestra gives us the lilting melodies of Elaine Pechacek that better depict the frank and on-the-nose lyrics or Katie Hammond. Every song wastes no time in telling us what is happening. It's not the slant-rhyme wordplay reveries of Sondheim, more a staccato directness of a James Ellroy pulp novel. It works better here because as a sung-through musical, lyrics are the lingua franca that defines everyone. We find beauty in a line like "I want a second opinion" that doesn't need flowering up. And, occasionally, we do get wonderfully-rendered imagery with stanzas like "a promise from the past."
What makes SEASONS stand out in its approach to sung-through musicals is also knowing when not to sing. A fundamental rule within Broadway musicals often suggests dialogue must gradually build up to a song, usually prompted by a musical riff overlapping before a character breaks out into the opening lyrics. SEASONS goes a different route, giving us that mostly sung-through piece; however, when the moment calls for it, characters will break their song with a brief word, short exclamation, or on-the-nose observation:
"Oh my god, I'm having a baby."
We pay attention when these characters stop singing, as if to say that the world as they know it has been shaken up in such a way that they simply can't find the notes to sing. It works especially well when we consider who gets to speak and who doesn't; this clues the audience in as to the fuller identities of these four characters.
For example, when the number "Push" begins, we hear Peter speak for the first time until he repeats himself again and again. "You can do it, you're amazing, I love you, you are strong, you're beautiful." Over and over he goes while Helen sings through her labor pains. Then, in a moment of clarity, we realize he's not speaking but actually engaging in spoken verse, contributing through a dialect of song, the dominant language of SEASONS's world.
Bringing these songs to life are a talented troupe of performers - four main actors and three ensemble - whose contributions to the show makes one wish it lasted longer than its breezy, eighty-minute running time.
Megan Valle absolutely shines as Helen, the pre-med major whose drunken tryst derails her life's plans. We can understand the hurt, the confusion, and the acceptance of what her new life will entail because Valle brings an emotional honesty to the role. Of the twenty-three songs that make up SEASONS, she takes the solo in four of them, more often than not eliciting rapturous applause from the audience, especially in Helen's laments throughout "Instead of."
The same acclaim can be given to Rebecca Fisher, who plays the mysterious Mrs. Jones. Fisher, the cast's sole Equity member, has racked an impressive résumé within the greater Orlando area, appearing in various venues that this author himself has visited: The Abbey, The Garden Theatre, Orlando Fringe Festival, and of course Dr. Phillips Center. She also commands the lion's share of solo numbers, most impressively in "Blue Jay," a number sung from the restraints of a hospital chair.
As the solitary male figure of the piece, Peter Heid makes sure he doesn't get lost in the crowd. Heid initially gives Peter an unpresuming, quiet presence that ultimately belies the inner angst his character goes through. It's not until a second-act solo, "These Hands," that we learn across a few minutes his own lifetime of personal demons. Suddenly, the blandsome aw-shucks grin he always put on becomes a mask hiding the true self - a scared adventurer who puts duty before dreams. Heid's 180 even just singing the two words of this solo makes him all the more believable.
Finally, enough cannot be said about young Gabrielle Hockensmith as the daughter, Hope. Like Valle, Hockensmith has the unenviable task of conveying both the thrill of a new life and the somber reminders of an old one slipping away. But the stakes are different here, and Hockensmith - fairly new to the Orlando theatre scene - pulls it off in spades. I look forward to seeing her career grow in future productions here in central Florida.
There's a lot to love about SEASONS, especially as this remounting by Generation Productions and director Kenny Howard brings back a lot of what won over the audience five years past at Orlando Fringe. Having not been witness to that, I can only assume that some of the technical deficiencies of that production (as critiqued by Broadway World's own Matt Tamanini) saw a few course-corrections here. Scene transitions felt seamless, especially with a good lighting design that clued us in as to whose story was unfolding. The thrifty reuse of certain set pieces also helped make this production and narrative feel intimate, that these characters share more than a stage; a mother's bed became the newlyweds' thanks to an easy redress of different bedsheets and nightstand.
My one concern was a selection of "floating rocks" (as I referred to them to my seatmate) that I eventually realized were supposed to be fall leaves. When winter came, the rocks disappeared, and spring brought about green rocks. But, please, don't let any floating rocks dissuade you from seeing this production. Rocks should be furthest from your mind in this production, especially as it offers so much more.
As someone who's been an Orlando resident for six years, I always strive to support local theatre - especially as the theatrical community in the area has always delivered high-calibre entertainment. I'm very grateful to have seen it opening night, especially as the show is running on a limited engagement at Dr. Phillips Center, only up through September 21. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online, so be sure to catch SEASONS before it goes.