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Kokandy Productions stages the Chicago premiere of Michael John LaChiusa’s esoteric 2003 musical about a hesitant young woman in the big pond of NYC.
Drawn from a pair of short stories by Deborah Eisenberg, Michael John LaChiusa’s 2003 chamber musical follows a conglomerate protagonist named Charlotte through a depersonalizing New York City. Still stinging from the bad relationship that propelled her to the city (as in Eisenberg’s “Flotsam”) and now struggling to quit smoking and find something to fill the cigarette-shaped void (as in Eisenberg’s “Days”), Charlotte seems to float—or swim, or jog—through her life, waiting for things to happen to her. (Charlotte’s new exercise regime at the local Y informs the musical’s oblique title.)
Taking its narrative cues from Eisenberg’s texts, more focused on descriptive detail than on plot or even character, and exacerbating that effect by merging the two unrelated stories, LaChiusa’s work feels undeniably disjointed, quick-cutting back and forth in time and into Charlotte’s memories and even her dreams, as short stories can. Most of the characters portrayed by the eight-actor cast are given short shrift, existing as they do only from Charlotte’s point of view. And LaChiusa’s score is similarly choppy, though its generally jazzy inflections help cast the snippety songs in a freewheeling, free-associational light.
Director Allison Hendrix’s staging for Kokandy Productions, with a minimalist look washed in watery blues and blacks by scenic designer Arnel Sancianco and costume designer Kate Kamphausen, is quick-moving and quick-witted, with strong music direction by Kory Danielson. Among the fine ensemble, standout turns include Aja Wiltshire as Kathy, Charlotte’s most grounded friend—a relative measure—and Jeff Meyer as Robert, the awful ex whose insults still haunt Charlotte (Casey Hayes takes over the role in August). In the central role, big-voiced newcomer Nicole Laurenzi is a terrifically sympathetic narrator, even in all of Charlotte’s neuroses and vacillations. Keep an eye on where she swims next.
Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit. Book, music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa. Directed by Allison Hendrix. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.