BWW Review: Annex's THE DEVIL AND SARAH BLACKWATER Lacks Focus, Storytelling, and Harmony
If you're going to put up a new musical, such as Annex Theatre's current world premiere "The Devil and Sarah Blackwater" you need a few things on board. First, an editor, to make sure that the show and the story is as tight and clear as you can make it. And second, a music director to present the vocals of the show in their best light. After seeing opening night, it seems to me that Annex had neither of these elements for a show that, while having some potential and talent, just seemed to wander around purgatory in search of its next bit.
With a book by Anthea Carns and music and lyrics by Lauren Freman, the story is part Orpheus and Eurydice and part Faustian tale as Sarah Blackwater (Freman), a singer/songwriter follows the devil into the underworld in order to get back her lover, Sam (Emily Pike) after the devil comes to claim his soul from a previous bargain. That's the basics. We'll get into more in a bit but first, this is a musical, so let's talk about the music.
Some of the songs are wonderful. Pretty much anytime Sarah is singing in her concert capacity or singing about her relationships, it was great. Those songs didn't really move any of the story along but at least they were entertaining. Then there were the songs in purgatory which just droned on, also not moving much along, and making little difference to the story. And I must mention the opening number which was reprised at the top of Act Two. What were they thinking?! It's this long, meandering song about being as strong as concrete that the ensemble cast comes out and sings to no one in particular. Your opening number sets the tone, sets up your characters, and a good one should give your lead their "I want" moment and the impetus for the journey. No leads in this one and no idea who was supposed to be "strong as concrete" or why or what that even meant. But it's so vague, let's sing it again in Act Two!
Then there's the story. The structure is all over the place and is, at best, confusing. It takes 20 minutes into the show before we even know who anyone is by name. People just come on stage, but we have no idea who they are. Is this Sarah? Oh wait no, this character is someone else. Oh, now this other character is coming out and singing about her girlfriends. OK, this must be Sarah and the other person must be her girlfriend. OK, I think I got it. Wait, did someone just mumble someone's name. I think they said Sam. OK, the other character's name is Sam. Great! Oh, here comes the Devil who's come to take Samuel Bell, Sarah's BOYfriend away. Wait, what?!? But she was just singing about her girlfriends. I'm so confused. And welcome to my first 20 minutes of the play. And before you jump all over me saying I need to get out of my gender-normative way of thinking, I don't care who you cast but let's make it clear who they are in the story. And no, that was not a point they were trying to make as that had nothing to do with the story. OK, moving on.
Eventually we do find out about Sarah's ex-girlfriend, Kelly (Minna Lee), who's also stuck in purgatory. OK, fine, she's bisexual. But even she's introduced way later in the show, as is another character who's only ever mentioned. Out of the blue and at the end of the show we hear about Sam's former boyfriend. Don't spring a new character on me at the end with no setup and expect me to care about them. It's lazy.
Directors Madison Jade Jones and Sam Ro direct the piece like they're trying to distract us from how bad it all is. Keep the demons undulating, throw more stuff on stage, and maybe they won't realize the place is burning down. Plus, there's no sense of direction. I know the place isn't that big, but you can't indicate downstage left for everything. That's where hell is. Oh, that's where Sarah went, but she's not in hell. Oh, that's where Kelly went while she's avoiding hell.
And then there's the singing. The leads, Freman, Pike and Lee all have lovely voices and if the show were just them, really it would have been a much better show, both vocally and without all the superfluous junk songs. But the ensemble, oy. Each time they came out to do a group number it would start off like the office had just gathered to sing "Happy Birthday". It's all flat, with everyone scrambling to find the note and come together. And maybe they eventually find some semblance of blending but there's still always that one person who's too loud and off on their own solo and key.
Like I said, the show has some potential but is no where near ready for an audience. Ditch about half of the purgatory stuff, pare down the songs, and learn how to introduce a character and you'll have a start. But for now, with my three-letter rating system, I give Annex Theatre's World Premiere of "The Devil and Sarah Blackwater" an "oh, God, are the carrion birds back AGAIN?!?" NAH. With a production like this I must ask, did you even do a workshop first?