Songbird: Theater review by Jenna Scherer
Anton Chekhov and the Grand Ole Opry sound like strange bedfellows, but in Songbird, they don't make quite as odd a couple as you'd expect. Still, they've got some work to do on the relationship.
Michael Kimmel and Lauren Pritchard's new musical is a down-home adaptation of The Seagull, transposing Chekhov's Russian country estate to a Tennessee farm. Narcissistic actress Arkadina becomes narcissistic country-pop star Tammy Tripp (Kate Baldwin), who's paying a visit to her hometown with her songwriter boyfriend, Beck (Eric William Morris), in tow. Tammy's troubled son, Dean (Adam Cochran), is more emo than country; his mood fails to improve when his mom makes fun of his musical stylings and his girlfriend, Mia (Ephie Aardema), gets the hots for Beck. Rather than shooting a seagull like his Chekhovian counterpart, Dean hits a bluebird with his pickup truck. The Shania Twain lyrics practically write themselves.
As the title would suggest, Songbird is full of tunes, mostly performed when one character pulls a guitar or a fiddle off the wall and admonishes another to sing one of their old favorites. In Kimmel's fantasy Nashville, everyone's got mean musical chops—not just the two supposed pop stars in the group. But it's worth suspending your disbelief for numbers by Pritchard (an original cast member of Spring Awakening): She pens warm, catchy tunes, performed with casual ease by the talented cast.
The large ensemble genuinely seems to be having fun with each other in JV Mercanti's likable production. Baldwin chews just the right amount of scenery as the monstrously self-involved Tammy, and Morris juggles charm and sleaze as a music-industry Trigorin. Though her character doesn't have a whole lot to do in the show, Kacie Sheik stands out in her turn as a misanthropic bartender who can warble with the best of ’em.
Kimmel doesn’t do the greatest job of blending music and story, however; most of the songs seem to be performed just for the joy of it. Between numbers, he has given himself the unenviable task of trying to condense the plot of a four-act Russian classic—and it does feel squeezed. He creates Nashville counterparts for all 10 central characters in The Seagull, and the many subplots feel shoehorned in between jam sessions.
Songbird would do better to distance itself from Moscow; it's never going to be as nuanced as Chekhov's original, so it may as well lean into that big, sentimental Tennessee breeze.
59E59 Theaters (Off Broadway). Book by Michael Kimmel. Music and lyrics by Lauren Pritchard. Directed by JV Mercanti. With Kate Baldwin, Ephie Aardema, Eric William Morris. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.