“Love Sick” is the on-the-nose title of actress-composer Ofra Daniel’s song cycle about a woman driven mad by passion. Based on romantic poetry embedded in the book of the Old Testament known as the Song of Songs, the show amounts to a celebration of sensuality, built upon the allure of Daniel herself.
Yet even over a relatively taut 90 minutes, “Love Sick” wears a little thin as a dramatic offering. Once Theater J’s production reveals its framework — an old woman of Jerusalem in rags, taking us back to her constricted, lovelorn youth — the piece lingers over her longing, like a storm hovering in idle. My patience for it waned, as its purplish lyricism, adapted from the language of the Bible, asserted primacy ever more emphatically over the evening’s more seductive facets.
Those would include the lush songs themselves, composed by Lior Ben-Hur and Daniel and played by a six-person band of string and woodwind players and percussionists. Director Christopher Renshaw has them roving the stage of the newly refurbished Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater at the Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center. The effect is a pleasing informality — the idea conveyed of street musicians as wordless troubadours — and it helps that they are, to a person, exceptional.
Renshaw, who two decades ago staged a provocative “The King and I” on Broadway that sought to underline the Eastern elements in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, seeks a similar authenticity for a new show with Middle Eastern roots. (Daniel is Israeli born and now lives in the Bay Area.) Misha Kachman’s graffiti- and litter-strewn set, dominated by an old tree with myriad outstretched barren limbs struck me as a bit too literal, though it does evoke the disorder and despair of Daniel’s outcast Tirzah — a name taken directly from the Song of Songs.
Through the fablelike dreaminess of “Love Sick,” we are meant to bond with Tirzah and feel for her plight: She’s married off to the dullest of husbands, a fishmonger played by Sasha Olinick. (Nothing says marital buzzkill like a dead carp.) But “The Fish Song,” the powerfully voiced Olinick’s character-defining number, underscores what needs to be bolstered in “Love Sick”: It comes across as only a partly finished thought. And for all the time we spend with Tirzah, an opportunity for her to express some vibrant need (other than for a man) never materializes. We’re kept at arm’s length, admirers of the character’s physical and musical gifts but left undereducated about her soul. By evening’s end, when the truth of Tirzah’s passionate fixation is disclosed, the poignancy of her tale hasn’t been fully activated.
One lovely conceit that does work well: Nestled in the limbs of the tree much of the time is the musician Ali Paris, singing and strumming his qanun, a beguiling, 76-string Middle Eastern zither that dates back millennia. He’s the lover with whom Tirzah communes, and Paris’s vocalizing, with his warm, versatile trill, sounds like a human equivalent of birdsong. You will be compelled to a belief in the mating call.
As in Song of Songs, the women of Jerusalem are conjured in “Love Sick,” here a chorus of four (Sarah Corey, Sarah Laughland, Kara-Tameika Watkins and Kanysha Williams), to lend some satisfying harmonies. The women perform a vital narrative function, though not perhaps to the degree they might. Daniel assigns herself the central role in the protracted prologue, an introduction to the story that feels awkward and ill-conceived. Would not the legend of Tirzah be a more resonant document if there were a stronger sense in “Love Sick” of it being passed on, from generation to generation? Would that not be clearer if it were these other women welcoming us into the story?
Musical theater is best when the music itself has some multifunctional design, when it explores new ways of telling a story as well as illuminating characters’ interior lives. “Love Sick” has found a way to nurture beauty; it should want to nourish the mind as well.
Love Sick, music by Ofra Daniel and Lior Ben-Hur; written and adapted by Daniel. Directed by Christopher Renshaw. Choreography, Matt Cole; music direction, Ali Paris; set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Kelsey Hunt; lighting, Andrew R. Cissna; sound, Brendan Aanes. With alternating musicians Manny Arciniega, Kendell Hollywood, Jason Labrador, John Tyler Garner, Cristian Perez, Duff Davis, Benjamin Rikhoff and Mila Weiss. About 90 minutes. $39-$69. Through Sept. 29 at Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. 202-777-3210. theaterj.org.