See What I Wanna See

Musical
'

Editorial Review

Signature's 'See' Gets Lost in The Dark

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Even a city stripped of illusions needs something to believe in. Or so a well-meaning priest convinces himself as he concocts a Central Park vision of Jesus in "See What I Wanna See," a chamber musical dedicated to the proposition that there is no such thing as a reliable source.

The priest's story forms the nexus of "Gloryday," the final and most involving portion of this evening, devised by the composer Michael John LaChiusa. The show, staged by Matthew Gardiner in the smaller of Signature Theatre's black-box spaces, the Ark, gives off a bit of theatrical spark in its later stages. But the turgidly noirish first act, titled "R Shomon" and describing a murder from multiple points of view, leaves a murky residue that the more vigorous Act 2 cannot completely mitigate.

LaChiusa's brooding, cerebrally challenging musicals include "The Wild Party," adapted from Joseph Moncure March's Jazz Age poem, and "The Highest Yellow," an exploration of the genius of Vincent van Gogh, which had its world premiere at Signature in 2004. Next up for LaChiusa is another project at Signature: a musical adaptation of "Giant," Edna Ferber's sprawling 1952 novel of Texas haves and have-nots, which is to be unveiled this month at the company's complex in the Village at Shirlington.

"See What I Wanna See" takes as inspiration the short stories of early-20th-century writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, whose work was famously adapted by Akira Kurosawa for the classic 1950 film "Rashomon." In "R Shomon," LaChiusa uses a gaggle of narrators to provide conflicting accounts of the stabbing death of the owner of a taxi fleet (Tom Zemon) who is either loathed or adored by his sultry wife (Rachel Zampelli), who is either coveted or repulsed by a thug (Matt Pearson), who is either seen knifing the husband or not by a janitor (Bobby Smith), who is reluctant to give evidence.

The characters' bluesy testimonials, accompanied by a six-piece orchestra smoothly conducted by Zak Sandler, form a mosaic that might be exhibited under the title "Whom Do You Trust?" On Adam Koch's set dotted with trees and lamp posts, the musical unfolds, offering no answers. It revels in mystery. (A leaden prologue to each act consists of kimono-clad Japanese lovers, played by Zemon and Zampelli, who each in turn sing of how and why he or she killed the other.)

The moodily dreary atmospherics of Gardiner's production, however, muffle the impact of LaChiusa's disquieting melodies; an audience feels left out in the cold.

Some warmth begins to return after intermission as the ever-capable Smith, playing the priest, establishes the mystical parameters of "Gloryday," set in a post-Sept. 11 New York, where the denizens are only too happy to shed their cynicism as rumors spread of the impending visitation.

In "Gloryday," at least, some actors are accorded vibrant moments, such as Channez McQuay, in a turn as the priest's socialist-atheist aunt. She offers a funny rendition of an anti-church screed, "The Greatest Practical Joke." Zemon, playing a penitent accountant, is in supple voice for the song "Central Park," and Smith is a rewarding presence throughout, as a man of the cloth fabricating a miracle out of whole cloth.

Or could it be that there is the hand of God in what occurs to the priest in the park? Either way, on this flawed evening, it's our faith in what's on the stage that's tested.

See What I Wanna See, book, music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Mark Lanks; fight choreography, Casey Kaleba; music director, Jon Kalbfleisch. About two hours.