THE BASICS: LATE IN THE EVENING: The World According to Paul Simon is an original musical directed by Michael Walline, co-conceived and, guess what, starring Zak Ward as a homeless vet remembering his life through photographs. Opening on April 24 it runs through May 26, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7, Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at both 3:30 and 7:30, and Sundays at 2 at MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main Street on the Daemen College campus in Amherst (enter off Getzville Road). (839-8540). www.musicalfare.com Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Walline and Ward have chosen 32 songs out of about 250 in the Paul Simon catalog, half of them well known such as “I Am A Rock,” “Graceland” and “Late in the Evening” and the other half not so much. There is no dialog as we move from song to song with messages expressed through either pure dance or pantomime, covering such huge intractable problems as racism, war, homelessness, and twentieth century alienation. Most of the songs are sung by Zak Ward accompanying himself with his six-string (folk) guitar, ably backed up by a four-person combo with that impeccable rhythmic timing that is a Musicalfare hallmark.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: While co-artistic collaborator and Music Director Zak Ward is almost constantly on stage, his fellow actors and singers come and go and include young Noah Bielecki, Cathy Carfagna, Terrie Ann George, Timothy Goodman, Robert Insana, Dudney Joseph, Jr., Dominique Kempf, Bob Mazierski, Sean Murphy, and Emily Prucha.
I have a number of problems with this production which to me was often a head-scratcher as I sat there wondering “What the hell is this scene supposed to mean?” It’s basically a juke-box musical, but despite the genius of Paul Simon, the lack of dialog left me in the dark. Or, it’s like a series of 32 music videos, binge watched in your parents’ basement as your mother occasionally screams down the stairs that you should get a life. Yeah, it’s that much fun. I was reminded of everything I don’t like about the musicals ONCE (song after song sounded the same) COMPANY (too many dreary issues crammed into one show) and PIPPIN (too mysterious and filled with “meaning”).
Ward is a competent musician, but his voice is not particularly pleasant, and I don’t think he has the “it” quality to carry a two-hour show. The lighting by Chris Cavanagh was very dark, punctuated by overhead spots, but the whole effect was rather dreary, and the excessive use of theatrical fog didn’t help. Yes, Paul Simon deals with all of the horrors of modern life, but underneath there’s an amused, self-aware glimmer of hope. That didn’t come across here. I think the inclusion of ten-year-old fifth grader Noah Bielecki was supposed to provide that “faith in the future” but it didn’t work for me. Where’s the joy?
The set design by Lynne Koscielniak was “noir” or “artsy” and there were no wings to the stage, so we got to see the black side walls and all of the rigging. Sort of a “let’s pull back the curtains and really expose the dark underbelly of humanity” concept. I was amused by the re-purposed industrial trucks with welded square tubing created for Musicalfare’s recent RAGTIME, here adorned with photographs. It would have been helpful to have the individual photographs that “inspired” each song displayed to the audience. Instead, once again we had to guess “what’s going on now?”
Another question: Koscielniak occasionally had the actors move the trucks together to create a box-car. Why? Yes it was clever, and that would have been great in a show featuring the music of Woody Guthrie, but Paul Simon never struck me as a “hop a lonesome freight” kind of songwriter.
One of Michael Walline’s hallmarks is tailoring his choreography to fit the level of the actors he has assembled. In this show the only standout was the particularly acrobatic Timmy Goodman.
Look, I get it. Creative people nurse certain ideas and they fixated on them and then one day, after they’ve paid their dues, they get to act on them. As a radio producer and on-air host I often have a desire to try something that I know in my heart would be really cool, and breakout, and sooooooo creative and that’s when my boss steps in and says “NO.” Unfortunately, there was nobody around to say that to Mssrs. Walline and Ward.
UP NEXT: FUN HOME, the multiple Tony Award winning musical (Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Score) about a lesbian who is coming of age, produced by Musicalfare but on stage at Shea’s 710 Theatre from May 9 through May 19.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!