That feeling when you leave a show and you’re not quite sure what you just saw, but you know you liked it. You might even love it, but still, you don’t know why. Just that it spoke to you, and for the rest of the night, you’re still listening.
This is exactly the feeling I had after seeing “Late in the Evening,” the latest from director-choreographer Michael Walline, now on stage at MusicalFare. It’s a dance play featuring music from Paul Simon’s solo career. Late in the evening is exactly the window of time during which Walline’s challenging concept and the production’s beautiful execution lingered in my thoughts. Good seeds bloom forever.
If you saw Walline’s 2007 work here, “Familiar Strangers,” you’ll recall the way he constructs these unique pieces – more than a dance piece; not quite a musical revue. They combine songs from the popular cannon (that show featured Joni Mitchell), an original story featuring anonymous characters, modern dance to express their introspective emotions, and live musical performance in service to the moment.
“Familiar Strangers” starred Terrie George as a reclusive woman who hypothesized the lives of everyday people passing by her window. In various duets and group numbers, she connects – or attempts to connect – to the lives around her.
“Late in the Evening” shoots for a similar north star. This time, our dreamer is a homeless veteran, played by the great Zak Ward, who also serves as the show’s music director and Walline’s artistic collaborator. Like George, who returns, Ward is a quiet kind of star – always strong, but carefully measured. When he grits his teeth into the angstier numbers, he’s earned the right to do so.
His character sits on the sidewalk, guitar in hand, and he sings his heart to the air. As strangers walking by hear his songs, they stop to give a dollar and listen. The rest is up to your imagination – are they reminders from his past, or visions for a new life, or merely passing thoughts on a lonely day? Like a children’s picture book, your guesses will never be wrong.
The story is thin, and by design. Even so, the first act needs revisiting. It launches with a peppy rendition of Simon’s “Kodachrome,” sung mysteriously by off-stage singers, foreshadowing the characters’ use of old photographs as story-starters. Lynne Koscielniak’s industrious set are lined with them, like faded postcards.
But after that the tone quickly turns down, dark and low, for quite some time. Everything here is great, like Dudney Joseph’s spirited “You Can Call Me Al,” or the graceful floating in “Soft Parachutes,” but it needs more lift to temper these dips. Act two reflects a more varied spectrum of emotions, and succeeds because of it.
Like Mitchell’s work, Simon’s soulful voice comes through with great purity. Ward’s musical direction leads with human touch, from the simplicity of the ensemble’s many solo voices (Bob Mazierski on “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War”) to the melting of their harmonies (“Slip Slidin’ Away”). Dominique Kempf’s sultry take on “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” evokes a hurt Amy Winehouse (by the way, turn this number up to 11; no one will complain). Ward’s voice is a wonder, laden with pain and longing and echoes of a brighter past. Young Noah Bielecki continues to give attentive, thoughtful performances here, after a great turn in this season’s “Ragtime.”
Chris Cavanagh’s sound design perfectly captures the clarity of every instrument, despite an occasionally low vocal mix. I’d listen to this cast album on repeat if such a thing existed. His lights are lush, like a waning sunset or muddled memory. I’m not sure I’ve seen or heard a show so clearly on this stage before. Beautiful technical work, everywhere.
Once again, Walline’s work taps us on the shoulder and reminds us to support one another, to support our veterans and homeless, and to support our imaginations.
“Late in the Evening: The World According to Paul Simon”
3 stars (out of 4 stars)
Through May 26 at MusicalFare Theatre, 4830 Main St. Performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $45 (box office, musicalfare.com, 839-8540)