A college campus provided an ideal setting for an evening of literary folk-rock and ambitious musical theatre presented by a pair of brainy songwriters. Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College was transformed into an enormous lecture hall Friday as an audience of about 500 people was schooled in the art of songcraft by Suzanne Vega and Duncan Sheik.
The primary intent of the pair’s erudite compositions is to enlighten rather than entertain. The result was an instructive, if somewhat dry, hour-and-50-minute performance.
Using a music stand rather than a lectern, Sheik began the seamless presentation with a combination of original compositions and selections from a recent album he described as “covers of artists and bands from the U.K. who were active in the ’80s.” Sheik’s sunny voice and soft-rock sensibility gave an incongruously wholesome sheen to unsavory songs such as the Cure’s “Kyoto Song” and Depeche Mode’s “Stripped.”
Until he won two Tony Awards and a Grammy for writing the music for the Broadway production “Spring Awakening,” Sheik was best known for his 1996 hit “Barely Breathing.” The song’s pleasant sensibility was immaculately rendered by Sheik and a backing band. Yet Sheik’s dainty approach and cheerless perspective eventually became tedious.
“Am I getting too lachrymose for you?” Sheik asked.
He was. Fortunately, an enticing version of Tears For Fears’ “Shout,” featuring vocals from Vega, ended his set on a cathartic note.
Vega introduced herself with a sterling rendition of “Marlena on the Wall,” a 1986 hit that showcases Vega’s best qualities. It features an inventive melody, clever lyrics and flat but pretty vocals that teem with meaningful inflections. The song is one of several era-defining Vega hits that appealed to folk, rock and pop fans in the ’80s and ’90s. Vega allowed guitarist Gerry Leonard to embellish most of her material with fascinating textures. His punk-inspired work on the riveting “Blood Makes Noise” was particularly refreshing.
Leonard was more restrained on selections from “Carson McCullers Talks About Love,” a collaboration between Vega and Sheik that debuted in New York last year. Vega explained that it’s “a play with music based on the life of Carson McCullers.” The author of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” is an unlikely subject for a musical. Removed from their original context, its songs made unusual demands on the audience. Comprehending the material was difficult but rewarding. Posing as a wrathful McCullers, Vega spat “I’d like to kill more than just that mockingbird during “Harper Lee.”
“One of these days I’ll have to come back here with the whole production,” Vega said.
While that prospect is enticing, another cultivated evening just like Friday sounds even more appealing.