KC Rep’s ‘A Little More Alive’ is an impressive new musical by talented young writer

04/19/2014 3:01 PM

04/19/2014 3:01 PM

Kansas City Repertory Theatre closes out its season with a world-premiere musical that explores family angst in suburbia in new and refreshing ways.

“A Little More Alive” is the work of Nick Blaemire, a 29-year-old multi-tasker who wrote the music, lyrics and book for this human-scale show. He spins a tale that is by turns familiar and surprising about two brothers and their respective relationships with their father, deceased mother and each other.

Blaemire shows himself to be an inventive composer and skilled lyricist. Tony-nominee Sheryl Kaller directs the show with careful attention to emotional details and she benefits from the expert work of a big design team. This production has a lot of moving parts, but it never seems cluttered.

The audience is alerted from the get-go that this will not be a business-as-usual musical. When a show opens with a song called “Pot at a Funeral,” you know you’re in for something a bit out of the ordinary.

At the center of a cast of Broadway and off-Broadway veterans, Van Hughes and Michael Tacconi play brothers three years apart in age with markedly different attitudes about the family.

Nate (Hughes) is a seemingly shiftless pothead with no direction home, while the younger Jeremy (Tacconi) is an industrious young corporate climber who spends so much time on his smartphone that it may as well be surgically attached.

As the brothers dig through their mother’s belongings they discover old letters — scores of them — apparently sent to her by a lover. Then they start going through the trove of home videos documenting family vacations and other important events and discover recurring images of the likely paramour.

The immediate question is what to do. Should they tell their father? Should they forget it and move on? Nate decides they should find their mother’s lover. After some initial resistance, Jeremy agrees, and with Lizzie (Lindsay Mendez), a young earth-motherly hospice nurse, they strike out for Vermont. Once there, they meet Molly (Kayla Foster), a neo-flower child, who is connected to them in a significant way.

There’s nothing particularly original about young people raised in the suburbs sorting out their feelings, but Blaemire has found a novel way to tell this story, which is imbued with undeniable human warmth.

This cast is as impressive a lineup of actor/singers as you’re likely to encounter anywhere.

Hughes inhabits the exuberant Nate with infectious charisma and makes the most of a flashy role. Tacconi in a way has a bigger challenge as the the controlled Jeremy, whose resentments have been doing a slow burn for most of his life. As Gene, their father, Daniel H. Jenkins delivers an impressive, low-key performance as a man trying to figure out how to handle his grief. The guy’s a great singer.

Mendez possesses a mesmerizing voice and creates a vivid impression as Lizzie, whose sexuality and maternal instincts are integrated in an interesting (and non-creepy) way. And Foster, who appears late in the story, stops the show with a lyrically intricate, rapid-fire duet with Nate.

The pop score, orchestrated by Jesse Vargas, often catches the listener by surprise, although there are times when it falls into overly familiar musical-theater patterns. Even so, this cast produces some dazzling vocal harmonies and the instrumentation -- keyboards, strings, guitar, bass and percussion -- allows for an impressive degree of musical variety.

Wilson Chin’s suggestive scenic design begins and ends in the suburban home near Washington DC where the brothers grew up, but also splits into halves to allow for open spaces and other locations. At certain moments, scenes are played on playground swings, which seem to have been added simply for visual variety.

The lighting design by Jeff Croiter and Cory Pattak plays an enormous role, creating a dynamic visual texture that is both bold and subtle. The video content is credited to Josh Lehrer, whose “home movies” are projected onto the set and function as flashbacks with Jenny Powers as the deceased wife and mother.

This production enjoyed backing from Hunter Arnold, a commercial Broadway producer, and a future life for the show seems virtually guaranteed. Where and when remains to be seen, but this appears to be one more example of the Rep introducing new work to the national theater scene.

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