It isn’t quite “Fargo, the Musical,” but “Midwestern Gothic” attempts to dance right up to the edge of Coen brothers territory, with maybe a quick two-step and a hop over to the land of David Lynch.
The show’s creators, Royce Vavrek and Josh Schmidt, are in the business in this Signature Theatre world premiere of piercing the flat surface of America’s heartland via a jagged new musical about ids unleashed with malice aforethought. Owing, though, to a story and score more invested in setting a tone than sculpting a plot, the work remains too unfocused, its murkiness more a hindrance than an asset.
That’s a shame, because embedded in “Midwestern Gothic” are intriguing conceits, one of them being the ways in which the musical twists our perceptions of horror archetypes — in particular, that of the naive, imperiled ingenue. Here, she’s anything but innocent, and in the casting of the persuasive Morgan Keene, the archetype is turned totally on its head: It’s as if Ann-Margret had been chosen to play the role of Hannibal Lecter.
The helter-skelter plot has principally to do with Keene’s Stina, a bored teenager with a mostly absent mother (Sherri L. Edelen) and a creepy stepfather (Timothy J. Alex), who gratifies himself while watching a jewelry shopping channel and entertaining designs on the girl left in his charge. As it turns out, Stina harbors her own confused, dark fantasies, inspired by images of Hollywood sex kittens and stoked by the four “hired boys” of her imaginary entourage (Evan Casey, Jp Sisneros, Chris Sizemore, Stephen Gregory Smith).
The things people get up to in their spare time! Director Matthew Gardiner and his design team imbue Signature’s smaller space, the Ark, with the look and feel of a barren world loaded with terrible secrets — too many of which are kept sequestered from the audience. The show begins with a pair of songs that establish the states of mind of Stina (“In Yellow”) and Alex’s Red (“A Million Poses”) and the evening’s languid pace. “She sets my heart a-racin’/ Gonna beat itself to death,” Red sings in one of the many brooding rock melodies by Vavrek and Schmidt.
Composer Schmidt, working with co-lyricist and book writer Vavrek, fails in these and other numbers to summon with much vibrant color the tension between these two pivotal characters; this remains a problem throughout the show. What we’re to make of them, and particularly of the manipulative Stina — who ropes into her odd, malevolent schemes a local boob (Sam Ludwig) — is never brought entertainingly to light. An audience begins to lose hope, and interest, well before the bloodiest business has a chance to start.
The cast is up to its assignments; Rachel Zampelli is particularly deft in the role of a barfly who goes home in the wrong pickup, and Alex, Edelen and Bobby Smith fully inhabit their portrayals of characters who in one manner or another pay for their dealings with Stina.
One issue becomes crystal clear over the hour and 40 minutes of “Midwestern Gothic”: There’s work still to be done here by Vavrek and Schmidt, the latter the composer of the scalding “Adding Machine: A Musical” that made a blistering impact at Studio Theatre several years ago. For the moment, it’s a cold show that doesn’t meet the quota for chills.
Midwestern Gothic, book by Royce Vavrek, music by Josh Schmidt, lyrics by Vavrek and Schmidt. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Ryan Hickey; music direction, Timothy Splain. About 100 minutes. Tickets, $40-$98. Through April 30 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit sigtheatre.org or call 703-820-9771.