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BWW Review: Moody MIDWESTERN GOTHIC Premieres at Signature Theatre

My expectations for the premiere of MIDWESTERN GOTHIC at Signature Theatre were so high that the musical itself was bound to fall short, no matter what. Billed as a darkly funny thriller, it's got atmosphere in spades and boasts laudable performances from a cast of committed actors. But that isn't enough to keep the whole affair from feeling like an interesting concept still in search of a form.

Morgan Keene stars as Stina, a bored teenager who occupies her time burlesque-dancing in her mom's vintage yellow swimsuit and singing with a quartet of "Hired Boys" in lumberjack attire, an omnipresent chorus in her mind. Keene's trembling voice and manic movements convey pent-up sexual energy and a damaged past. Also bored is her stepfather Red, a stoic Timothy J. Alex. Stina's sassy bartending mom, Deb (Sherri L. Edelen), works several miles away and isn't much of a presence in their lives. Everyone in this small town has a lot of time and a lot of secrets, and idle hands are the devil's workshop.

In an early scene, Red props himself up in a shabby armchair, tunes into a home shopping channel on an antique television, and shoves his hand down his pants. This might be the most honest, subtly funny image in the whole show. The MIDWESTERN GOTHIC premise is promising at this point, but what follows for the next ninety minutes takes itself too seriously to be defined as funny and is too tissue-thin on plot to be a nail-biter. Those craving a piece in the same smart, twisted vein as FARGO or MISERY may ultimately be disappointed. The book (Royce Vavrek) deals in common tropes: troubled daughter, absent father, alcoholic stepdad, cheating spouses... all without addressing them in a groundbreaking or subversive way. True, it takes incestuous overtones and manipulative sexuality to the max, but so do countless other dramas.

The plot is supported by a serviceable score. Josh Schmidt's music employs diverse instruments, including accordion and tuba, and fuses driving rock with a cabaret sensibility. Lyrics by Schmidt and Vavrek range from straightforward ("Gonna Get Us in Trouble", "Whiskey Courage") to questionably quirky (such as when Rachel Zampelli, as one-night stand LuAnn, sings that she should have painted her fingernails blue instead of rainbow in "'Neath the Surface"). Keene's burlesque performances ("Hired Boy", "Bathtub Burlesque") are entertaining in their own right, with choreography by director Matthew Gardiner. The best words come in late, when a fervent Keene delivers the penultimate song "Mama Cries Into Her Tea", finally letting us into the backstory behind Stina's tortured psyche.

Sam Ludwig as Anderson, a nice boy who crosses paths with the ruthless Stina, provides desperately-needed doses of self-aware humor. Along with the audience, he balks at the unfolding events, and perhaps the musical itself, unsure whether he should laugh. The most pronounced humor is visual (scenic design by Misha Kachman and lighting design by Colin K. Bills). A likeness of Jesus lights up overhead at just the right moment. Later, a bathtub is lowered from the ceiling, setting the scene for Stina in stilettos. MIDWESTERN GOTHIC is nothing if not visually appealing.

This musical is risky, which is to be applauded, and the actors gamely immerse themselves in its strange world. Had the creators leaned even further into the strangeness, they might have had something truly brilliant on their hands.

Running time: approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

MIDWESTERN GOTHIC runs through April 30, 2017, at Signature Theatre's ARK Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 703-820-9771.

Photo: Morgan Keene as Stina, with Jp Sisneros, Evan Casey, Chris Sizemore, and Stephen Gregory Smith as Hired Boys; photo credit Margot Schulman, courtesy of Signature Theatre.

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From This Author Barbara Johnson

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