BWW Review: Katie Berger's FULL: THE MUSICAL at the Shimberg Playhouse
It's a question I always find myself asking: Why aren't more original plays and musicals produced in the Tampa Bay area? Yes, there are various new play festivals and staged readings, but full productions of new, locally written, fresh works rarely rear their heads in our vicinity. Hopefully that's changing. For instance, freeFall Theatre mounted a first rate version of Natalie Symons' The Buffalo Kings to much acclaim last January, and Carrollwood Players brought down the house with And a World to Carry On, a musical based on the works of Laura Nyro, written by Tampa-based Barry Silber. Now a side project of Jobsite Theater (Jobside) is producing a new work by another local talent, Katie Berger, entitled FULL: THE MUSICAL at the Shimberg Playhouse. It only plays until Tuesday night, September 29th, but if you're looking for an introspective, smart, warm and moving musical that will force you to reach for your Kleenex more than once, then FULL is for you.
Berger wrote the book and lyrics, and she along with Alan Blake Conley created the music. Berger also pulls a Lin-Manuel Miranda by playing the lead role in the show. The character's name is Harper, a driven 16-year-old bookworm who doesn't stop to eat or have fun and is haunted by the death of her father. When asked why she doesn't take it easy, she says, "I'll chill out when I'm dead." She's screechy mean to her mother, and she also finds herself with an off-and-on love interest with a high school senior and fellow geek, Sam. She has another "friend," Emily, who is feeling like she's being abandoned by Harper whenever Sam's in the picture.
But Harper's in trouble. After her father's shocking death, she has shut down and stopped eating. Even though she is lured by her own walking, talking Id, she eventually finds a way to break out of this funk and start l-i-v-i-n' (to quote Wooderson in Dazed and Confused). The road to that breakthrough is the meat of FULL: THE MUSICAL.
The show is a special, quiet piece, obviously quite close to Berger's heart. It sometimes comes close to being an After School Special set to music, but it's very personal, almost like reading someone else's private journal. Berger is incredible in the lead role, very real. Sometimes I wonder if she should mix it up a bit, and when she's with Sam, really set herself free so we can see what he sees in her. But she's so dour so often that we wonder how Sam can stay with her so long. (They're both supremely smart and TS Eliot-loving geeks, but it would be even better if we saw a freer side of her with Sam. There are glimpses, but we need even more. When she's not haunted by her problem, she still seems so dour rather than truly liberated with this special love.)
As Sam, Cameron Kubly is sweetly geeky, and the audience loves him. He has a "Happy Days" Ritchie Cunningham innocence, and we root for the two of them throughout the show. Kubly, like Berger, possess a fine voice (both of them were the stars of freeFall's Burnt-Part Boys last year). They are such a sweet couple that we would like to see even more of their relationship.
As Emily, Harper's "friend," Hannah Benitez sings wonderfully and is a likable presence early on, so friendly, but then when we realize who she really is, our skin crawls at the sight of her. It's by design, and Benitez plays the part to the hilt.
In the under-written role of Harper's mother, Alison Burns makes the most of it and shines onstage. She sings beautifully, and we sense her caring for her daughter. My one qualm with the part is that the mother, a nurse, doesn't seem to know the seriousness of Harper's plight for much of the show. This could be construed as ironic, but it comes across as a plot aberration.
Harper is haunted by the memories of her father, and everyone should be so lucky to have Patrick Ryan Sullivan be their dad. As a professorial TS Eliot fan, his character dons glasses that make him resemble the "Wasteland" poet. His onstage presence is mammoth, and he owns every moment. There is an instance in Act 2 where his speech to Harper brings the audience to tears; I could hear so much sniffling around me that for a moment I thought the majority of the audience had a cold. It's powerful stuff, and Sullivan's heartfelt performance punches it up a notch.
The show is a no frills affair, with just a table, three chairs and lots of books on the stage. The direction by Sean Ryan Paris is proficient, although sometimes it takes us awhile to know the exact time and place of a scene. But his work with his talented actors hits all the right emotional notes.
As the title indicates, FULL: THE MUSICAL is, in fact, a musical, and a very free-flowing one. The music and songs come and go, with no real standout number, all of them overflowing with an abundance of heart (Conley is the music director). The musical isn't quite Next to Normal meets Kate's Secret or Dying to Be Perfect. But even with its teenage angst subject matter, it's quite subtle and smart. The songs flow in and out of the story, and they are the glue that holds the show together. You won't end up humming most of Berger's and Conley's music as you leave the theatre, but you can't imagine the show without the songs fluidly fading in and out. (A gentle note: With new musicals, it's a good idea to have a song list and scene list in the program so that audience members can look it over and remember the various numbers after the show.)
But nothing is perfect, and there are several issues with FULL. Some scenes, like a Meet-Cute between Harper and Sam, seem confusing (Did they just meet for the first time? Have they known each other awhile? It's like something out of Last Year in Marienbad). Some of the songs have a sameness about them, and I felt the ending was too easy and may need to be ironed out in a workshop. But my biggest beef with FULL: THE MUSICAL is that I believe Harper's syndrome needs to be more specifically defined. In the program, Berger calls it an eating disorder. But the script treats it in too general a manner, the disorder that dare not speak its name; is it anorexia or bulimia? I wondered if, perhaps, Berger thought if she kept the disorder more general, then maybe more people could identify with Harper's situation. But I think the opposite is true--the more precise something becomes, the more people can empathize and understand it. Photographer Diane Arbus said it best: "The more specific you are, the more general it'll be."
So, where does Berger go from here? I recommend a little tweaking with the show, making Harper's situation even more specific, and strengthening some of the supporting characters. And then I recommend getting this show produced more and seen often. And finally, I recommend Berger keep writing and exploring the musical genre because she's a strong, intriguing songwriter with an interesting, twisted world view. And she has a keen ear for snappy dialogue. She may be known for being a local performer, but now she's become something else: a real writer.
FULL: THE MUSICAL ends its run on Tuesday, September 29th at the Shimberg Playhouse. For more information, check out www.fullthemusical.com.