Futurity: Theater review by David Cote
In this retro-utopian concert turned musical, Civil War solider Julian (César Alvarez) and British mathematician Ada (Sammmy Tunis) muse rapturously on brain mechanics and consciousness circa 1864. They hunger to know how organic matter and electricity combine to produce those cogitating, dreaming, imagining marvels in our heads. But I wish everyone involved with Futurity had spent more time studying the structure of musicals and less in dormitory all-nighters about how cool thinking is. It’s full of lovely musical arrangements and clever idea-stuffed lyrics, but the storytelling is numbingly inert.
Futurity, which combines sci-fi and 19th-century Americana, began as a 2008 project by Alvarez and Tunis’s alt-folk band, the Lisps—back when steampunk was not completely irritating. It was then developed in Minneapolis and Boston and recorded as an album and has now been coproduced by Ars Nova and Soho Rep, with the latter’s visionary leader, Sarah Benson, directing. There’s no shortage of talent: Alvarez and Tunis are sweet, engaging performers, and they’re surrounded by a diverse group of versatile actor-instrumentalists. Lisps drummer Eric Farber cuts a zany figure, bashing away at percussion units as well as found objects. Yi Zhao’s throbbing, livid lighting and a modular scaffolding set by Emily Orling and Matt Saunders create a variety of looks for a physical production that retains its origin as a bunch of loosely dramatized songs.
But there’s a fatal lack of dramaturgical forward motion to the affair, which alternates increasingly same-sounding tunes with fragments of dialogue and speeches. Julian and Ada’s epistolary relationship (cute but zestless) culminates in the creation of a giant, playable Steam Brain (a gamelan-like installation devised by Farber and the set designers). The reveal of this aural and visual coup is the evening’s high point but comes after intermission—a break you wish had been eliminated along with 30 minutes of twee, wise-child vamping in favor of a tighter arc.
Of course you want to encourage experimental musicals by talented newcomers, but folks have been putting concept albums onstage since Jesus Christ Superstar. The density of intellectual whimsy and antiwar melancholy in Futurity is admirable but too ungrounded in characters or situations to make us care very much. Forging a path to tomorrow out of the detritus of the past, Alvarez and his collaborators merely create a tedious, prolonged present.
Connelly Theater (Off Broadway). Book, music and lyrics by César Alvarez. Directed by Sarah Benson. With Alvarez, Sammy Tunis. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.
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