“My Joy Is Heavy!” is the first installment of “Arena Riffs,” a trio of filmed musicals produced by Arena Stage. The shows, presented free online over the next two months, are elastically open-ended: They may be fragments of works to be expanded or simply live as short cycles of songs. On the evidence of the invigoratingly fresh style and layers of insight the Bengsons lay out here, I’m ready for their longer version.
“There is light down here/ Once your eyes adjust/ There is light down here,” they sing in “Underground,” the opening song and one of seven the couple composed for “My Joy Is Heavy!” The film, with its rhythmic, conversational numbers, progresses as if it’s a household concert, with Shaun on piano, trumpet or guitar, and Abigail, in bruised and buoyant vocals, singing lead. No effort has been made to dress things up. This is raw-form entertainment, two grown-ups in sweats (and their young son, Louis, in sweet cameos in the snow) opening their home, and their hearts, to their viewers.
The aforementioned “Underground” lyric illuminates the production’s central, powerful spine: Even in the depths of a struggle with depression or anxiety attacks or a pregnancy not going as planned, a human being can still probe for joy — once the “eyes adjust.” “We are so sad,” Abigail says at one point, as the camera finds her curled up in bed, recounting the mournful increments of a recent miscarriage. “We’re between versions of our lives.” An audience indeed has the sensation of watching Abigail pass through the stages of letting go of anticipation; we absorb an understanding of what has happened to her in a poignant way.
The Bengsons are cutting an intriguing path through musical theater. “Hundred Days,” a folk-rock exploration of mortality, was a hit in 2017 at the Under the Radar Festival at off-Broadway’s Public Theater. “My Joy Is Heavy!” employs the cinematic storytelling techniques of other music groups, such as the more whimsical Flight of the Conchords, to intermingle musical motif and aesthetic in a way that feels unmistakably personal.
This new musical reaffirms the Bengsons’ status as troubadours of the pandemic, a distinction underlined last fall, when their “Keep Going Song” went viral on YouTube. A pair of dancers, Sarah Goeke and Travis Staton-Marrero, performed their own living-room duet based on it.
It helps that the Bengsons are so open to the camera and to each other. Their music fills all the corners of “My Joy Is Heavy!” as naturally as their jars and utensils crowd their counter spaces. The homespun charms and lyrically explicated anguishes of their musical make their door one you’ll want to knock on, again.
My Joy is Heavy!, created by the Bengsons. Streaming free at arenastage.org.