at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Book & lyrics by Stew | Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald Created with & Directed by Joanna Settle | World Premiere
Artistic Director Bill Rauch has challenged the complacent, traditional view of theater in the past several years by including in the season a third musical in a format that is more performance art than legitimate theater. Rauch’s leap has worked for me in past years. In 2012, Party People, was one of my favorite productions of the season, and last year’s Unfortunates knocked around in our minds and conversations for many days after we saw it. All in all, we have been glad that Rauch took the chance on a different format of entertainment, and we even congratulated ourselves on our enjoyment of the productions which made our more stodgy friends uncomfortable.
Well, Family Album is going to make our self-congratulation difficult for many years. Family Album is created in the performance-piece style, but it is embarrassingly juvenile, undeveloped, and unprofessional. The author, Stew, phoned in a one-eighth-baked book accompanied by a simplistic, repetitive score.
We are told that the story is about dealing with yourself as a middle-aged artist who is confronting the tensions between making art and making money to provide security for your family. The problem is that we are told in boring, straight-forward words about the tension. There are no real characters, just people delivering sophomoric line after sophomoric line. Sometimes those lines are spoken, but often they are badly sung.
Even potentially cute ideas, such as a song with a “black men can ski” lyric goes nowhere. That one line is repeated 100 times, killing any interest anyone could have in the topic. None of the songs pass muster as a complete work. Most feature only two or three chords, repetitive lyrics, and an utter lack of creativity. There are a few tongue-twisting numbers, but they serve only to throw more cringe-worthy rhymes and simple, simple, simple thoughts at the audience.
There must have been no acceptance criteria or quality control for this commissioned work. Nothing good is memorable. We do remember the playbill notes that promise that the performance was fast-paced although the running time was unknown at publication. In fact, the performance was tedious, loud — not fast, and it crawled through three hours of clock time. I thought I was going to remember some of the worst rhymes, but fortunately alcohol and sleep has helped me forget them.
Adding to the abysmal books/score is a mostly terrible, non-acting cast. Over half of the performers on stage are musicians, not actors. The distinction shows. I feel uncomfortable faulting a professional guitar player or drummer for being wooden in their speeches. But, damn it, the acting by the musicians was excretably awful. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival made a stupid decision to include musicians in the acting company.
Moreover, the musicians who were brought in for Family Album and are only in this one production, don’t sing very well. They sound awful through the over-hot microphones in the small space of the Thomas Theater. Their voices were harsh, unmelodic, and unpleasant.
There was talent wasted on stage. Ashland veteran Miriam A. Laube sang extremely well, looked gorgeous, and did a credible job with the awful things that were put in her mouth. Daniel T. Parker, another genuine OSF company member, made his impossible role almost entertaining at times. And, newcomer Lawrence Stallings owned the stage when he gave a solo or was allowed to dance and move. He could act, too!
All three of the people with talent hold Equity cards. I am not a natural fan of credentials, but the Equity asterisk* was glaringly missing from the most one-dimensional, marginal “actors” in the Family Album cast list.
The only debate we have about Family Album is whether it is the worst thing we’ve ever seen at OSF. I am still holding out for the 2004 disaster Oedipus Complex, but my husband thinks Family Album is the winner.