Slim Pickings

Musicals battle primordial monsters and eating disorders

If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, experts recommend informing yourself about the disease, arranging medical and psychiatric care, and talking privately with your child in a calm and non-judgmental manner. Of course, you might also follow the example of bemused, bothered, and bewildered suburban mom Gayla Freeman (Barbara Walsh), and blame yourself in a series of brisk pop numbers. Attired in sensible blue button-down and wrinkle-proof slacks, this mad housewife stalks the stage. With popping eyes and rictus smile, she trills, "Bad mother, bad, it's me." The new musical Normalseems to agree.

While ostensibly focused on the struggles of the Freeman family with the daughter's anorexia, the Transport Group's rather grim musical comedy concerns itself mostly with chiding Gayla for her reaction to her daughter's illness. If books such as The Beauty Mythattributed the obsession with thinness to an attempt to disempower women, Yvonne Adrian's book and Cheryl Stern's lyrics fault Gayla's brief return to work and her (over)involvement in her daughter Polly's care. From attempting to secrete extra fat and calories in her food to taking the lock off her bedroom door to consulting a series of expensive professionals, Mom does more harm than good in the musical, driving away her husband and teenage son in the process. The play's advice to Gayla as expressed in song: "Let her go through it." A catchy refrain, but a troubling moral—particularly as 7 percent of anorexia sufferers die of the disease, and many of those who recover cite "caring voices" as the prime factor in their recuperation.

If the voices in this musical aren't particularly caring, they are strong, particularly that of Falsettos vet Walsh. She hums and hoofs with frightening commitment, lending verve to the comedy numbers, pathos to the mother-daughter duet, and even undeserved credibility to the puzzling ditty "Nicaragua." Adam Heller as her husband and Nicholas Belton as her improbably sensitive teenage son also lend fine support, as does Erin Leigh Peck's forgivably shrill Polly. Three women who play doctors, bosses, and (inexplicably) hunger-striking suffragists round out the cast.

Walsh, Peck, and Shannon Polly in Normal
photo: Carol Rosegg
Walsh, Peck, and Shannon Polly in Normal

Details

Normal
Book by Yvonne Adrian, Lyrics by Cheryl Stern, Music by Tom Kochan
The Connelly Theatre
220 East 4 th Street
212-352-3101

Beowulf
Music and Lyrics by Lenny Pickett, Lyrics by Lindsey Turner
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
212-727-2737

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Director Jack Cummings III shifts effortlessly from scene to scene and musical director John DiPinto ensures that the live band covers any interstice. It's difficult to fault efficiency, but all this sterile seamlessness renders the action rather too pat and cheery. What ought to be devastating comes off as merely coy. Indeed, with its snappy delivery and all-white set, Normal too often seems a very special episode of a minimalist sitcom.

Unlike the beastly illness of anorexia, the bugbears of Beowulf have the distinct advantages of being tangible, slayable, and actually sort of cute. Growly Grendel bears a resemblance to the Predator of film fame, as does his blue-eyed dam. And the dragon that bests an elderly Beowulf is a wonder of flaming eyes and multiple-man puppeteering.

In many ways, this new musical adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, commissioned by the Irish Repertory Theatre and playing in its cozy 22nd Street space, resembles just another louche Chelsea evening. It features seven strapping men attired in sleeveless amalgams of camo and netting—to celebrate his triumph Beowulf even dons a gold lamé vest. The lads spend much of the sung-through piece drinking, sparring, and dancing with one another. (Admittedly, they seem to prefer a form of Old English tap to any clubbier steps.)

To the strains of a harp's anxious plucking and a harmonium's plunking, as well as pre-recorded accompaniment, the cast sings of "Beowulf, the man and the legend." The show strikes an uneasy truce between self- seriousness and a low budget. It pretends to the epic but often devolves into accidental silliness. Sentiments such as "my song will live forever" are unfailingly well-intentioned but rather difficult to actualize on a handkerchief stage. Charlotte Moore contributes venturesome direction and wrings more effects from a flashing light and a fog machine than one might expect. But when Grendel must limit his rampage to upturning a few chairs, he appears less a primordial beast than a drunk spoiling for a bar fight.

Nor do the words of Lenny Pickett and Lindsey Turner elevate matters much. Anglo-Saxon proves notoriously difficult to adapt and set to music, but surely more apposite phrases must exist than "covered in slime, I had to fight them off" and "he's dead, come on let's go." The absence of Old English strong stress and alliteration or more contemporary rhyme schemes renders the speeches rather flat, if not simply silly. Beowulf may claim "my sword is a symbol and I am a myth," but his lyrics could use some work.

 
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