Premieres, an organization that supports new musicals, has for the past several years been commissioning and producing short, single-performer music-theater pieces under the general title Inner Voices (30th Street Theater). The company’s latest bill contains three such works, all neat and intriguing, but only one successful. The limitations of the other two reveal some of the form’s inherent difficulties.
A one-character musical raises two basic theatrical questions: Who is the person singing to, and what can possibly happen that’s worth singing about? Classical music, over the centuries, has hunted answers to these questions in forms like the Baroque solo cantata and the Romantic scena. The items in Inner Voices all resemble these concert-hall predecessors more than any kind of musical theater.
The first, Borrowed Dust, by Martin Moran, shows a young man (Hunter Foster) describing, presumably to us, the events and feelings that followed his younger brother’s death in a Colorado mountain town. The events are interesting; their narration is clear and feelingly delivered. Foster, though harsh-toned in his upper register, goes through the required emotions with subtly varied forcefulness.
We learn, though, almost nothing about this narrator, who remains only a conduit for his brother’s story. Composer Joseph Thalken colors in the narration with skillful variety, rising, at one neatly chosen moment, to an actual dramatic song, built out of a three-note ostinato, that conveys the words the dead boy’s mother speaks over his body. But what surrounds this high point is chiefly information set to music.
Victor Lodato’s Arlington, music by Polly Pen, also mainly conveys information, this time psychological. An Army wife (Alexandra Silber) muses, drinks, and picks out tunes on the piano while missing her husband. Short on data, the piece frustratingly lacks forward motion, even the narrative kind. Pen rests the woman’s rather generic thoughts on a mesh of minimalist romanticism; Silber sings sweetly. But the upshot is only stasis.
Farhad or the Secret for Being, by Nilo Cruz, masters the form by simply answering the questions. Its heroine, fervently embodied by Arielle Jacobs, is a Muslim girl who has been masquerading as a boy and must now, for safety’s sake, reluctantly change back. She voices her conflicted feelings to Allah; we, eavesdropping, wait for her to resolve them. Composer Jim Bauer scores her vociferations for guitar, oudh, and percussion, shaping songlike passages from Cruz’s segmented text. Solo cantata seemingly provides the pattern, though Saheem Ali, alone of the evening’s three directors, finds physical variety within the restrictive situation.