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BWW Review: HOW CAN I LOVE YOU at Ancient Lakes Theatre Festival

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A gorgeous site, a stellar cast, and a show with problems

BWW Review: HOW CAN I LOVE YOU at Ancient Lakes Theatre Festival
Brandon O'Neill, Iris Elton, and Christian Quinto
in How Can I Love You at
Ancient Lakes Theatre Festival
Photo credit: Roy R. Goodall

Dear Readers, as we inch back into the world of live theatrical experiences, the excitement to put out incredible art is palpable. And when you have a stunning outdoor venue such as the Cave B Winery Estates in George, WA, not to mention some of the A-listers of Seattle theater talent involved, that excitement can be overwhelming. But don't let that excitement blind you to when a show just is not there, as was the case with "How Can I Love You" from Composer Rand Bellar and Playwright, Librettist, and Lyricist Vince Bryan.

Let's start with the location. If you've grown up in the Washington area, you may already know the beauty of seeing a concert out at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, WA. Well, now from the same founders of the Gorge (Vince and Carol Bryan) comes the stage at Cave B Winery Estates and it's just as majestic as its big brother. With an outdoor amphitheater just below the winery and overlooking the grandeur of the Gorge, it's a stunning place to put on a show. Gorgeous vistas, delicious wine, what more could you ask for in a show? Well, a show that works.

"How Can I Love You" tells the tales of three sets of families as they deal with a loved one going through memory loss and dementia. A heady subject that hasn't really been done by a musical, that I can think of, and deserves attention. In the show we have Joshua (Nathaniel Tenenbaum) and his wife Pearl (Varinique Davis), married couple Trudy and Shorty (Mari Nelson and Bob De Dea), and Maria (Iris Elton), her son Danny (Christian Quinto) and her Mother (Suzy Hunt). And while things start off if not happy but normal, then Pearl, Shorty and Maria's Mother all slowly devolve until they are catatonic, leaving their remaining family to figure out how to care for them, who should care for them, and is there life beyond caring for them?

To aid us in the story telling, each of the three patients have on stage personas called "me neurons" (Alexandria Henderson and Sade Aset for Pearl, Nick Watson and Nik Hagen for Shorty, and Billie Wildrick and Tori Gresham for Grandma) who communicate for them through song and movement.

The talent involved in this show, including direction by Eric Ankrim and Music Direction by R.J. Tancioco are not the problem. The problem is the script and songs from Bellar and Bryan which falter on some very basic musical theater and storytelling necessities. First and foremost, who is this story about? At times it's about the patients, at times it's the family and at times it unfathomably becomes about the medical staff at the home (played by Brandon O'Neill, Jose Gonzales, and Nicholas Japaul Bernard). But none of these people are ever fully fleshed out and their journeys through these horrors are either non-existent with epiphanies that just spring from nowhere, or largely happen off stage in the moments between the scenes. Moments we don't see. The most egregious of these instances is from the character of the Doctor who doesn't have much interaction on stage with anyone other than "Let me show you around the facility", but suddenly at the end of the show chooses to break all the rules and take Joshua and Pearl out of the home to chaperone them on a "date" where he puts them in the back seat of his convertible and coyly says "Don't worry, I'll tilt the mirror up so I can't see what's happening back there." This is problematic at best since, if you recall, Pearl is catatonic and doesn't recognize her husband. But putting that moment aside, mostly since it made me cringe, the Doctor then later has this big epiphany of a song where he figures out who he wants to be in life. But since we have no prior information on him or on any of his issues, we largely don't care.

Secondly, in a musical the songs need to move the story along. They do not at all. The majority of them are one single sentiment, often times, "I've lost my loved one", "They're not in there anymore", or "Can I give up on them?", and that single sentiment is repeated for the majority of the song. Repetition like that is fine in a pop song, but not when you need to tell a story in musical theatre. I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again, repeating the same phrase over and over doesn't convey a story.

BWW Review: HOW CAN I LOVE YOU at Ancient Lakes Theatre Festival
The Stage at Cave B Winery Estates
Photo credit: Roy R. Goodall

The dialog is ham-fisted, and the sentiments are the basic tropes about people falling into dementia that we've all heard before. If you want an audience to connect with a harsh subject like this then show us the harsh moments. Give us the raw and vulnerable moments, don't just play out over and over the same cliches. You want to show the discomfort and make the audience feel uncomfortable, for example in shows like "Next to Normal" or "Fun Home". Without that we, as an audience, have nothing to grab onto.

There are so many other issues here. There's the creepy sexual tension between the staff at the home and the patients' families. There are songs that spring out of nowhere and have nothing to do with anything in the story but are something one of the home staff wrote. And there's a severe lack of stakes of any kind within the story and any kind of conclusion. Granted, with the subject of dementia it's not like it can end with the patients suddenly being cured but the show needs to go somewhere and it doesn't. So, ultimately, with my three-letter rating system, I'm torn. For the show, "How Can I Love You", I give it a big old, repetitive train to nowhere, NAH. But for the cast and location I give it a YAY. Here's hoping that if they choose to make this an annual kind of Festival, that they bring in a better, more fleshed out show, that would make the trek worthwhile.

"How Can I Love You" from the Ancient Lakes Theatre Festival, performs at the Cave B Estate Winery in George, WA through July 25th. For tickets or information, visit them online at www.ancientlakestheatrefest.com.


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