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Talk To Me Now

Robert Insana and Theresa Quinn in Talk to Me Now.

A new show debuts at MusicalFare

With Talk to Me Now, a new musical by Randall Kramer and Theresa Quinn, MusicalFare boldly marches into the world of contemporary rock musicals. Not another revue or another homage to a decade of pop music, this show ambitiously joins the ranks of edgy shows like Next to Normal and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, new musicals that deploy rock music to explore issues of psychological complexity while turning a new eye to historical figures or trends.

Indeed, there are echoes of a wide range of musicals here. Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark preceded Next to Normal as a musical examination of mental breakdown and breakthrough. Jesus Christ Superstar placed historic figures in an anachronistic rock nd roll setting. On a Clear Day You Can See Forever certainly flirted with psychological duality, albeit masquerading as ESP.

Structurally, the show most closely resembles a non-musical that was seen on MusicalFare’s stage last season, Moises Kaufman’s brilliant 33 Variations, in which a music historian becomes obsessed with Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, while simultaneously coming to term with her own debilitating and degenerative illness. In Talk to Me Now, a music historian, played by co-playwright Theresa Quinn, is obsessed with the remarkable life of 19th-century concert pianist and composer Clara Wieck Schumann, while simultaneously coming to terms with her father’s debilitating and degenerative Alzheimer’s disease.

The contribution of Talk to Me Now is its surprisingly inventive exploration of feminist themes.

Clara Wieck’s story is intriguing. Born in 1819, she was a child prodigy who, under the tutelage of her dictatorial father, established a stellar concert career at the age of eleven. Later, against the wishes of her dad, she married his student, composer Robert Schumann, one day before she reached the age of majority, setting off a series of angry legal battles. Add to this, eight children, Schumann’s mental breakdown, a long flirtation with Brahms, and we’ve got one hell of a story. (Actually, the story has been told before, notably in a screen portrayal by Katharine Hepburn.) At every turn, Clara Wieck prevails over the patriarchy, despite the price she has to pay.

Oddly, while the Wieck story is endlessly captivating, the narrative that is most clearly articulated in Talk to Me Now is the story of music historian and performer Gretchen Talty, played by Quinn. The character is obsessed with the life of Wieck, but does not seem to have learned any lessons from history. Against the urging of her brother, played by John Kaczorowski, who doubles as Schumann, Talty falls into the traditional daughter trap and allows her own life and career to be derailed by her father’s healthcare needs. This is a compelling escape from freedom story.

There are three narrative threads to the Talty story: her career struggles, her artistic struggles, and her family struggles. The character views this collision of competing needs in terms of the classic wanting to “have it all” dilemma. But while Talty may be thinking of Maltby and Shire’s Baby, the creators of this musical have something more ingenious up their sleeves. In reality, Talty is avoiding the opportunities that lie at her feet and the trails blazed by women who have come before her. The character entirely misconstrues her own dilemma, and in a fantastic coup de théâtre, it takes the men in her life—her brother and a dream visit from her father—to set her on the path towards her own success and happiness.

The triple narrative does get convoluted at times, especially when it intercuts the Clara Wieck story, which is sometimes difficult to follow. And while Talty’s performance career does give her a reason to perform a litany of feminist rock anthems by such song writers as Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, Sara Bareilles, Shawn Colvin, Alanis Morrisette, and Ani DiFranco, I felt that the jukebox format arguably lessened rather than enriched a very original scenario. DiFranco’s “Talk to Me Now” lends the show its title. Imagine how thrilling an entire original Ani DiFranco score would be. On the opening night, the presence of songwriter Alison Pipitone, whose own musical storytelling is legend, was additionally enticing in this regard. If Cyndi Lauper can write Kinky Boots, surely a female rocker can be enlisted to provide an original score.

Yes, the familiar tunes are a comfort, but that particular shortcut puts too many demands on the book, forcing dialogue to maneuver around songs that are not specifically moving the action. Typically, as a musical is being written, large expanses of the script disappear into the score. (Recall that Cats, which has no spoken dialogue, won a Tony for its book.) In its next incarnation, it would be electrifying to see this absorbing tale told with original music.

The production is populated with a talented and certainly hardworking cast. Renee Landrigan is especially convincing as feisty Clara Wieck. Multi-tasking Theresa Quinn gets a pass for wearing so many hats—and her joy at embodying Gretchen Tally is unmistakable. Philip Farugia is endearing and affecting as Johannes Brahms. John Kaczorowski is very good as Robert Schumann and Getchen’s brother. I was especially impressed by Robert Insana’s realistic portrayal of Gretchen’s father, a character he creates without resorting to any presentational tricks.

The production continues through August 17. For details, see On the Boards.